WITH JUST 13 days to go until the start of Betfred Super League, winger Tom Briscoe reckons Leeds Rhinos are in a much better situation than before their most recent title defence two years ago.
Rhinos went into 2016 as the previous season’s treble-winners, but were disrupted by flooding at their Kirkstall training ground, suffered a host of injuries to key players and failed to cope with the loss of star men Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai.
The off-field situation is more stable now, most of the squad are fit – with only Brett Ferres and Stevie Ward unavailable for Sunday’s practice game at Castleford Tigers – and Richie Myler and Brad Dwyer have been brought in to fill the gaps left by the departure from the ranks of Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow.
Leeds bounced back from their disastrous 2016 campaign, which culminated in a successful battle against relegation, by finishing second in the table and winning last year’s Grand Final, when Briscoe scored a brace of tries.
Now preparing for his fifth season as a Leeds player, Briscoe believes lessons from two years ago have been learned.
Speaking at the club’s media launch yesterday, he said: “Obviously we lost three big players at the end of 2015 and it was the first time in years the squad had changed that much.
We are definitely in a better spot than going into our last defence of the title.Tom Briscoe
“I think from that we’ve learned to deal with leaders in the team leaving so I think we are in a lot better, a lot stronger position.
“Obviously we’ve had the experience of 2016 and we’re better for that.
“We are definitely in a better spot than going into our last defence of the title.”
Rhinos’ league campaign begins at Warrington Wolves on Thursday, February 1.
Briscoe said: “From training everything looks positive.
“We have got the Castleford game this weekend to see where we’re at and build on that.
“We want to hit the ground running going into the season and the World Club Challenge.
“From what we’ve seen so far the new guys have fitted in great.
“We’ve learned from the losses of big players before so we know what we have to do.”
Coach Brian McDermott has named a strong team for Sunday’s Grand Final rematch, including 13 of the players on duty at Old Trafford three months ago.
Tigers will also field their best-available line-up and Briscoe said: “They got to the Grand Final and they were by far the best team throughout the year last year.
“We know they’ve not had big changes and they will still be a high-quality team and tough to beat, especially at Cas.”
Rhinos lost eight successive games against Tigers before the Grand Final victory and a win on Sunday would be a statement of intent for the new year, Briscoe believes.
“It is a good game – because it’s a tough game – to show where we’re at,” he added.
“If we can put a marker down it will build everyone’s confidence going into the season.”
Rhinos lost their first four competitive games in 2016 and Briscoe admitted it is important to start well this time.
“It is all building to the World Club Challenge [in Melbourne in four weeks’ time] to start with,” he said.
“We need to be good from the start and not have too much to work on going into the World Club Challenge if we’re going to have a chance.
“We want to start the league well, but the World Club is a big target, being the third game.”
Rather than it being a distraction, Briscoe said the clash with the Aussie champions will make Rhinos more focused at the start of the year.
He insisted: “Everyone will be wanting to go over there and play. I would imagine everyone will lift their game in order to try and get a spot on the plane and in the game out there.”