Leeds can thrive on head start

The Super League champions begin their season a week early tonight – their rivals may struggle to catch them up

Super League XV – so enticing we start it twice. It is a peculiar way of beginning a new campaign, but there are two games this weekend before a full round of games the following week.

This untidy kick-off is necessitated by Leeds' and Harlequins' dates with Melbourne next month, for the World Club Challenge and a warm-up game. It also means an odd choice of games with which to launch the new season.

Crusaders' match against the champions, Leeds, at Wrexham tonight will be a success in the sense that it will at least be close to a 10,000 sell-out, more than the club ever attracted in its previous existence in South Wales.

Unfortunately, it is also likely to be the most monumental mismatch and the start of Crusaders losing whatever credibility they have. Moving the game's Welsh expansion club to North Wales is the "least worst" solution, the RFL's administrators admit. Tonight could give completely misleading indicators about its viability.

Although there will no doubt be all the usual stuff about Super League XV being the most competitive ever, television viewers will see a one-sided romp. Indeed, Leeds are likely to do something similar to teams a lot better than the hastily assembled Crusaders this season. With Danny Buderus, the former Australian Test hooker, amounting to the equivalent of a new, world-class player now that he is fit again after long-term injury, and some other good recruitment, they look stronger than ever.

Where is a serious challenge to come from? Well not, in all likelihood, from either of the two clubs in action tomorrow. Harlequins' already thin squad is further stretched by seven injuries and they could easily lose valuable ground early on. And, as their detractors will point out, they still can't draw a crowd.

Visitors Wakefield finished a creditable fifth last time, but a big turn-over and a heavy reliance on veterans make them an iffy proposition. That and the risk that coach John Kear may not be around to work his magic for much longer if he is lured by the England job.

Saints, without Sean Long but still with the equally talismanic Keiron Cunningham, will be there or thereabouts come the end of the season, but Huddersfield Giants – the best of the rest behind them and Leeds in 2009 – are another club with questions to answer.

There are few doubts now about the Giants' coaching, with Nathan Brown in charge, or their playing prowess with Brett Hodgson, last season's man of steel, and one of the game's outstanding forwards in Eorl Crabtree in their ranks. But they will go into the season with six of their squad facing possible rape charges arising out of a "team bonding" week in the north-east. For all Brown's efforts, that is bound to be a distraction.

For a real challenge to Leeds' dominance, we might be better looking to Warrington. The Wolves finished 10th last time but they have now had a pre-season under Tony Smith, who took over mid-way through last campaign.

They have also invested in quality, with the ball-skills of David Solomona, the strength and potential of Ryan Atkins in the centres and the rich promise of Richie Myler. Myler is one of three gifted young half-backs playing within a few miles of each other who could light up the season.

The others are Saints' Kyle Eastmond and Sam Tomkins of Wigan, who could help make his side trophy contenders once more. Michael Maguire has got them looking leaner and meaner – especially Iafeta Paleaaesina – and that could bode well.

Watch out as well for a dramatic improvement at Hull, if they can keep Long fit. He could be one of the personalities of the season, but it will take a team where everything slots into place to overhaul Leeds.

Team-by-team guide: This season's Super League contenders

Bradford Bulls

Coach Steve McCormack

Key player Matt Orford

The disappointment of missing out on the play-offs obscured the fact that Bradford ended the season as a form team. They also have a major influx of talent this time.

Last season 9th

Prediction 4th

Major signings Stuart Reardon (Warrington), Danny Sculthorpe (Wakefield), Matt Orford, Heath L'Estrange, Glenn Hall (all Manly), Brett Kearney (Cronulla)

Castleford Tigers

Coach Terry Matterson

Key player Joe Westerman

A club full of character will not be derailed by a little matter like their coach losing a finger in a training accident. Without major investment this time, however, they will do well to match last season.

Last season 7th

Prediction 9th

Major signings Paul Jackson (Huddersfield), Steve Snitch (Wakefield)

Catalan Dragons

Coach Kevin Walters

Key player Dallas Johnson

Another club who finished strongly last year, almost reaching the Grand Final, and they look to have recruited good quality players this time.

Last season 8th

Prediction 5th

Major signings Dallas Johnson (Melbourne), Setaimata Sa (Roosters), Chris Walker (Gold Coast)

Crusaders

Coach Brian Noble

Key player Nick Youngquest

A chaotic relocation and a rushed recruitment drive has left the club looking worse off than it was last year. Hard to see where the wins are coming from.

Last season 14th

Prediction 14th

Major signings Tony Martin, Frank Winterstein (both Wakefield), Tommy Lee, Jamie Thackray, Gareth Raynor (all Hull), Nick Youngquest (Gateshead), Michael Witt (NZ Warriors)

Harlequins

Coach Brian McDermott

Key player Tony Clubb

Quins could be very good or very bad last season and look thinner this time. Key players like Luke Dorn and Rob Purdham are missing the start of the season.

Last season 11th Prediction 12th

Major signings Andy Ellis (Barrow), Matt James (Bradford), Ben Jones-Bishop (Leeds), Oliver Wilkes (Wakefield)

Huddersfield Giants

Coach Nathan Brown

Key player Leroy Cudjoe

A great 2009, plus good recruitment, but how will they react to the cloud hanging over them from rape allegations?

Last season 3rd

Prediction 7th

Major signings Brad Drew, Scott Grix (both Wakefield), David Fa'alogo (South Sydney), Lee Gilmour (St Helens), Graeme Horne (Hull)

Hull FC

Coach Richard Agar

Key player Sean Long

Can hardly fail to improve on last season, but they are relying to a dangerous degree on expensively recruited veterans – especially Long.

Last season 12th Prediction 8th

Major signings Sean Long (St Helens), Mark O'Meley, Craig Fitzgibbon (both Sydney)

Hull Kingston Rovers

Coach Justin Morgan

Key player Paul Cooke

The biggest improvers of last season, but this looks like a year of consolidation in east Hull. The factor that could change that would be getting the best out of Paul Cooke week after week.

Last season 4th

Prediction 10th

Major signings Joel Clinton (Brisbane), Mike Ratu (Leeds), Matt Cook (Bradford).

Leeds Rhinos

Coach Brian McClennan

Key player Kallum Watkins

The best by a distance last year, they look considerably stronger this time. Only a particularly bad run of injuries is likely to knock the Rhinos out of their stride.

Last year Winners

Prediction Winners

Major signings Greg Eastwood (Canterbury), Brett Delaney (Gold Coast), Kyle Amor (Whitehaven), Michael Coady (Doncaster)

St Helens

Coach Mick Potter

Key player Kyle Eastmond

It feels like a new era at Saints with no Sean Long and much will depend on how well Eastmond steps into his boots.

Last year Runners-up

Prediction 3rd

Major signings Sia Soliola (Sydney), Nick Fozzard (Hull KR)

Salford City Reds

Coach Shaun McRae

Key player Stefan Ratchford

Struggled last season and it is hard to see them doing much better this time, although Daniel Holdsworth looks as thought he could be an important recruit.

Last season 13th Prediction 13th

Major signings Matty Smith, Shaun Tyrer (both St Helens), Ashley Gibson, Jodie Broughton (both Leeds), Daniel Holdsworth (Canterbury)

Wakefield Trinity Wildcats

Coach John Kear

Key player Darryl Millard

John Kear has made an art-form of reinvigorating veterans and misfits, but it will be a huge achievement if he can get that chemistry to work as well this time.

Last season 5th

Prediction 11th

Major signings Ben Jeffries, Glenn Morrison, Terry Newton (all Bradford), Paul Johnson (Warrington), Paul King (Hull), Shane Tronc (North Queensland), Darryl Millard (Canterbury)

Warrington Wolves

Coach Tony Smith

Key player Richie Myler

This could be a season of transformation for Warrington, with three high-quality recruits added to an already strong, well-coached squad.

Last season 10th and Challenge Cup winners

Prediction Runners-up

Major signings Richie Myler (Salford), Ryan Atkins (Wakefield), David Solomona (Bradford)

Wigan Warriors

Coach Michael Maguire

Key player Sam Tomkins

Not much change in personnel at Wigan, but a new coach with a new approach promising a lighter, fitter squad. It will be fascinating to watch Sam Tomkins' second season.

Last season 6th

Prediction 6th

Major signing Paul Deacon

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