RUGBY LEAGUE: Leeds show value of putting homegrown talent to the test

Super League 2005; Super League turns 10 and is a lot stronger than it was at the outset. Dave Hadfield reports
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Super League, which might have looked to some at its birth like the wrong competition played at the wrong time of year, reaches double figures next weekend with the kick-off of its 10th season.

It has achieved much of what it set out to do, by producing more telegenic rugby, usually in front of bigger crowds, often in better stadiums. It is only in the failure to produce a winning Great Britain team that it has been a disappointment. The clue to that is plain enough in the playing rosters of the 12 Super League clubs - and particularly their new recruits for this season - where the overreliance on overseas imports is all too evident.

That was one reason why Leeds's long-awaited triumph last season was a good thing. They had their share of overseas players, but not, like some of their rivals, too many. Their winning side were based on players brought through their own youth production line. Their confidence in that source is apparent in their winter activity - or lack of it. Even with experienced Australians such as David Furner and Matt Adamson leaving, they have brought in just one newcomer, and he is a young Brit: Wakefield's Gareth Ellis.

Leeds's confidence will be high after beating Canterbutry Bulldogs 39- 32 in their World Club Challenge at Elland Road on Friday. No doubt Gary Hetherington has something up his sleeve if the squad need freshening up in mid-season, but essentially Leeds are happy to go with what they have. There is much improvement to come from Danny McGuire, Richard Mathers, Chev Walker, Ryan Bailey and, when he is fit again, Matt Diskin. That last name is the one reason for hesitating before making Leeds favourites to retain their crown. The hooker was their player of the year in 2004 but could miss the first three months of this season. Another club would have brought in a replacement on a knee-jerk impulse, but the Rhinos have an air of calm.

Their nearest rivals last season, Bradford, also have problems at hooker. Ryan Hudson is suspended by the club pending a League doping inquiry, so the Bulls could have Robbie Paul playing there, which did not look like the answer last season. The acquisition of Andy Lynch and Brad Meyers should liven their pack, while Paul Deacon will have plenty to prove to Brian Noble, who left him out of the Tri-Nations squad.

Wigan already have their problems, with Andy Farrell and their new prop, Luke Davico, out of action for the start of the season. Everything points to another year in which much is asked of their young players, although much will also depend on how their newcomers bed in.

St Helens had last season ruined by the banning of Sean Long and Martin Gleeson over their betting fiasco. Gleeson has since been sold to Warrington, but Jamie Lyon is an exciting, if unpredictable, replacement. Like their other two major signings, Paul Anderson and Michael Smith, he represents a risk.

Hull looked capable of finishing second before fading late in the season. This year, they must adapt without Shaun McRae at the helm, although his successor, John Kear, has class recruits in Nathan Blacklock and Stephen Kearney.

The best story of last season involved Wakefield, strugglers who recruited well enough to reach the play-offs, where they probably deserved to beat Wigan and go into the last three. The loss of Ellis is a blow, and the tempestuous Julian O'Neill is an odd replacement.

If anyone is to make a similar breakthrough this season, it should be Warrington. Rehoused and prosperous at the Halliwell Jones Stadium, all they lacked last season was a side consistently capable of living up to their aspirations. Gleeson should make a difference and they could be the side to put pressure on the big four.

In a season when two sides will go down, in order to accommodate Perpignan in 2006, the initial thoughts of the other clubs are likely to be directed towards the foot of the table. Huddersfield had a wonderful start last time and, without Brandon Costin to direct them, need to do the same this year if they are to maintain their momentum. If Brad Drew, Chris Thorman and Michael De Vere settle in, they shouldn't have problems..

Widnes have appointed Frank Endacott and have gone for veterans with good attitudes. It is not a long-term strategy, but it might be enough to keep them up. Salford have big plans for a new stadium, but need to retain their Super League status. The young Wigan pair Luke Robinson and David Hodgson are their most intriguing new recruits. London lost so much quality at the end of last season that they looked like obvious relegation candidates, but they have recruited energetically since then.

So, out of necessity, have Leigh, but it will be a miracle if they have done well enough to survive. One thing has not changed in the 10 years of Super League; it is still a difficult club to break into.

New faces The arrivals to make an impact by Dave Hadfield

Bradford Bulls

Andy Lynch

With Ryan Hudson suspended, another ex-Castleford player is the man the Bulls must hope will add a new dimension to their pack.

Huddersfield Giants

Brad Drew

The Australian has a reputation as a real handful from dummy-half, and will be a key man as the Giants try to get off to a flying start.

Hull

Stephen Kearney

The Kiwi back-rower (right) is all class. Nobody passes the ball better out of the tackle. But has he left his British adventure too late?

Leeds Rhinos

Gareth Ellis

Just one signing for the Super League champions, but Wakefield's captain was always the one they wanted.

Leigh

Jason Ferres

Promoted Leigh have had to assemble virtually a new side, with the experienced Australian scrum-half the man to make them tick.

London Broncos

Mark McLinden

The Broncos have signed three new half-backs to cover their losses, but the ex-Canberra player could be the most influential.

Salford Reds

Luke Robinson

Released by Wigan, he has every incentive and all the ability he needs to show them that they have made a big mistake.

St Helens

Jamie Lyon

The Aussie centre could erase the disappointment of losing Martin Gleeson - if he has found his appetite.

Wakefield Wildcats

Julian O'Neill

A surprising signing by last season's improvers. Must be at his best on the field and on his best behaviour off it to make it look a wise move.

Warrington Wolves

Martin Gleeson

Looked a world-class centre in the Tri-Nations and could be the man to ignite the Wolves' underachieving back-line.

Widnes Vikings

Terry O'Connor

The Vikings have gone for experience in a big way, and much will depend on how much value can be extracted from veterans like O'Connor.

Wigan Warriors

Dennis Moran

He has been a hero for London, and the prospect of him playing in a stronger side is a mouthwatering one. Expect plenty of tries.

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