THE LAST time Leeds Rhinos went into a season as defending champions, it was a disaster.
Two years ago Rhinos followed up a treble-winning campaign by losing in the World Club Challenge, finishing ninth in the table and falling at the first Challenge Cup hurdle.
They are in much better shape this time.
Like 2016, they will try to defend their Betfred Super League crown without key members of the title-winning squad, but this time vacancies have been filled.
Like-for-like, Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow are irreplaceable – just as Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai were.
But Richie Myler is a good addition to take over McGuire’s half-back role and Brad Dwyer will do a strong job of making an impact off the bench, as Burrow did so effectively.
Myler is a quality support player, with pace and experience and has already impressed his new teammates with the way he gets his message across on the training field.
Dwyer has pace out of acting-half and a point to prove after his early promise went a little stale at former club Warrington Wolves.
Rhinos also have a joker in the pack in Nathaniel Peteru. The ex-Gold Coast Titans forward is an unknown quantity, but comes highly-recommended and has the attributes to go well in the British game.
Rhinos’ 2018 squad isn’t stronger than last year’s, but looks well-balanced and there are options in key roles – at full-back, half-back, hooker and all across the pack – which wasn’t the case during their previous season as champions.
Rhinos’ 2018 squad isn’t stronger than last year’s, but looks well-balanced and there are options in key roles – at full-back, half-back, hooker and all across the pack – which wasn’t the case during their previous season as champions.Peter Smith
The younger end of the squad are a year more experienced, Joel Moon has a full season under his belt at stand-off and Matt Parcell has been around the block once in Super League and will be better for that after a brilliant debut campaign.
Injuries will have a bearing, but the players in squad numbers 20-30 have all had a taste of first team rugby and are capable of coming in and doing a job if required.
The likes of Cameron Smith, Josh Jordan-Roberts and particularly Jordan Lilley and Mikolaj Oledzki, did well in the Championship on loan at Bradford Bulls and will have benefited from that experience.
Burrow’s appointment as academy boss was a smart move and the current crop of under-19s are Leeds’ best for some tim. In the long-term Rhinos look in a strong position.
As far as this season goes, much will depend on how the defending champions begin the year.
As both Rhinos and Warrington Wolves – who went from league leaders in 2016 to the Qualifiers last year – have found out, in a 23-round campaign it is difficult to recover from a poor start.
Rhinos face a tough opener at Warrington, followed by a clash with McGuire’s Hull KR at Elland Road. That comes just eight days before they take on Melbourne Storm in the World Club Challenge at AAMI Park. The week after that daunting test they travel to Widnes Vikings, where Leeds have not won since 2014.
Rhinos will need to pick up at least a couple of wins from those four matches and if they do they will be in decent shape.
Much could depend on how Rhinos handle the World Club Challenge. Travelling to Australia and back in the space of 10 days, during the season, to play one of the finest club sides of all-time is a massive gamble.
The benefits are obvious. If Rhinos were to win it would be their greatest achievement and it is an opportunity to spread the club’s brand in a huge rugby league market, but there is the possibility of it damaging their league campaign if it all goes pear shaped.
Leeds will also have to cope with loss of home advantage for two games at Elland Road and what effect the redevelopment – and a much-reduced capacity – has on the atmosphere at Emerald Headingley remains to be seen.
Rhinos finished 10 points behind league leaders Castleford last year, which is a big gap to bridge, but much of that was due to losing four times to their near neighbours.
Castleford won eight successive games against Leeds, stretching back to 2015, before Rhinos upset them in the Grand Final and if they are going to challenge for top spot the Headingley outfit will need to pick up some wins over their West Yorkshire rivals.
But Leeds finished a healthy five points ahead of third-placed Hull last season and were the best team in the Super-8s, on points difference from Tigers and there’s no reason why they can’t be in contention for at least a semi-final spot again this year.