FEW OUTSIDE Headingley are tipping Leeds Rhinos to challenge for honours, but centre Joel Moon reckons they can shock the pundits this year.
After their battle against relegation in 2016, Rhinos are regarded by many experts as likely also-rans for the new Super League campaign, which begins when they visit St Helens in eight days’ time.
Competition sponsors Betfred rate Rhinos as fifth favourites to win the Grand Final (8-1) and to be top of the table when the league splits in Super-8s and Qualifiers after 23 rounds (9-1).
But Moon believes Leeds’ squad – largely unchanged from the previous season – is as good as any in the competition and he is predicting “big things” from the seven-time Super League champions.
Leeds will need to climb five places to secure a semi-final spot, but assessing the state of play going into the final week of preparations, the 2015 treble winner insisted their prospects are bright.
“We’ve had a good pre-season,” said the former Salford man.
“The team has trained really hard and it’s going to be a good season.
“I think we can do big things. Everyone’s confident.
“All the boys are training well and we’ve got a good group of young players, too, who are competing for spots.
“That’s making it healthy in the squad. It’s going to be a big, tough year.”
Last season was one of the most disappointing in Leeds’ history, but Moon feels the players have come out stronger and will be better for the experience.
“We have grown massively,” he said. “We’ve found out about people, individually and as a team so I think it is going to help us in the long-run.
“We are a good team, it’s just a matter of us putting it together and playing as a team.”
Rhinos’ fall from grace – which saw them win only three of their opening 19 competitive fixtures – was one of the big stories of last year.
The question to be answered over the next few months is whether 2016 was a blip or a sign the most successful club of the past decade are in long-term decline.
“Asked if Rhinos have a point to prove, Moon said: “Yes, definitely after playing like that.
“It is always tough for Leeds, but I guess the boys are just confident and that’s what we need to get out of this pre-season.”
On a personal level, Moon is preparing for his fifth season as a Rhinos player and reckons he is feeling better than he has ever done at this stage, despite missing last week’s game at Featherstone Rovers due to a minor injury picked up against Hull KR the week before.
“I went back home [at the end of last season] and I had a couple more weeks back home than usual, but I needed it,” said the Aussie, who scored eight tries – and a drop goal – in 21 games last year.
“It has worked out well and I’ve come back fresh and ready to go.”
The 28-year-old filled in at stand-off at times last year during Rhinos’ injury crisis, but expects to play in his specialist position of centre during the new campaign.
“It’s good if Mac [coach Brian McDermott] wants to put me in there during a game, but I don’t really see myself as a stand-off,” he stated.