Rugby League: Imposing debuts for new clubs

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The Independent Online
ON THE FIRST Sunday of the new Super League season, much of the attention will inevitably be focused on how the newcomers fare. Wakefield Trinity, the First Division champions accepted into the elite after much prevarication, get the first crack - and there is unlikely to be much neighbourly charity at Castleford.

More revealing, as a gauge of success both on and off the field, will be Gateshead Thunder's home game against Leeds, many people's choice as likely Grand Final winners this year. Gateshead could have hoped for their first fixture to pan out differently. They would have preferred not to have played in the evening, not on television and not with Newcastle United at home the same day. They could also have wished for less daunting opposition and it is a shame that they could not afford even a token non- Australian in their 17.

Leeds bring Barrie McDermott straight back after suspension, in place of Martin Masella - a sure sign that your transgressions are forgiven more quickly when you are in good form than when you aren't. Andy Hay replaces Adrian Morley in the second row, although Morley's hamstring injury might ease sufficiently for him to be on the bench, alongside the 18-year-old Kevin Sinfield.

If Gateshead keep it close, there will be the inevitable grumbles about family favours within the Hetherington household; Gary is Leeds' chief executive and his wife, Kath, is the Thunder's director. If they do manage it, though, it will be through the efforts of what should settle down as a very good squad, even if it has too much to do tomorrow. Castleford have their major close season signing, Aaron Raper, back after missing the Challenge Cup victory over York with a knee injury. That will only make Wakefield's job harder and they could do with an inspiring performance from their new captain, Tony Kemp, playing against his old club.

Warrington's Cup victory over Halifax makes tomorrow's return fixture at The Shay an intriguing one, while one of the most eagerly anticipated partnerships of the season gets its first Super League outing at Bradford, Robbie Paul having recovered from a knee injury in time to play alongside brother Henry against Sheffield.

The Sheffield coach, John Kear, will decide whether to involve Matt Crowther, Steve Molloy and Michael Jackson after seeing whether they have any reaction to last night's reserve fixture between the two clubs.

Anthony Sullivan is again missing from St Helens' squad at Salford after playing rugby union for Wales A in France last night. Teenagers Paul Wellens, Tim Jonkers and Mark Edmunson are the likely replacements for injured forwards Chris Joynt, Sonny Nickle and Keiron Cunningham.

Martin Offiah is to play for the London Broncos at home to Huddersfield despite the fatal shooting of his father in Nigeria this week, but the club's other first-choice winger, Rob Smyth, is out following a blow to the head at Hull KR and is replaced by Brett Warton.