Countdown begins to the big Super League kick off

St Helens celebrate with the Super League trophy after their win against Wigan Warriors in the 2014 Grand Final .... can they do it again in 2016?
St Helens celebrate with the Super League trophy after their win against Wigan Warriors in the 2014 Grand Final .... can they do it again in 2016?

THE million-dollar question on everyone’s lips ahead of Super League XXI is how will Leeds cope without their inspirational leaders?

The Rhinos will remain forever indebted to long-serving captain Kevin Sinfield for his two decades of distinguished service but particularly for his contribution to their remarkable treble-winning feat of 2015.

Former England captain Jamie Peacock’s efforts were no less invaluable as Leeds followed up their comfortable Challenge Cup final triumph by lifting, both in nail-biting fashion, the League Leaders’ Shield and the Grand Final trophy in a memorable finish to an unforgettable campaign in which, as officials promised from the outset, every minute did indeed matter.

Both icons of the sport have left the Rhinos for new adventures, Sinfield to try his hand at rugby union with sister club Yorkshire Carnegie and Peacock donning his suit for the role of football manager at Hull KR, and have left huge holes to fill.

It can be argued it has taken four men to fill Sinfield’s role - Danny McGuire taking over the captaincy, Stevie Ward his old number 13 jersey, Liam Sutcliffe the stand-off role and Zak Hardaker the goalkicking duties - while Keith Galloway and Anthony Mullally have been brought in to try to offset the absence of Peacock and his fellow retiree Kylie Leuluai.

But the champions are still able to boast some of the finest outside backs in Super League, they have high hopes for Sutcliffe and the belated arrival of England second rower Brett Ferres provided them with an unexpected bonus that could make them the team to beat in 2016.

Saints, the 2014 champions, are sure to be challenging once more, especially with French half-back or hooker Theo Fages on board. Other new faces at Langtree Park in 2016 include Lama Tasi, Dominique Peyroux (New Zealand Warriors) and Jack Owens (Widnes).

Luke Walsh is sure to be a key man for the Saints - the Australian scrum-half has shown enough in two injury-hit seasons that, with a clear run, he can make a big impact in Super League.

If Saints can avoid the sort of misfortune with injuries that has bedevilled them over the last two years, they are sure to be pushing strongly for honours.

Wigan, runners-up at Old Trafford for the last two years, are the bookmakers’ favourites to make it third time lucky, largely on the back of the breakthrough season by George Williams in 2015 and Sam Tomkins’ eagerly-anticipated return.

However, Tomkins’ knee injury will delay his comeback until Easter and he will need to quickly get up to speed after an eight-month lay-off if the Warriors are to make the most of his return.

The Warriors will also be hoping former England winger Josh Charnley can re-discover his form to help offset the loss of Joe Burgess to Sydney Roosters.

Warrington have arguably strengthened most in the off season and the arrival of Kurt Gidley, Tom Lineham, Jack Hughes, Mitchell Dodds and Joe Westerman should help them go a long way towards making up for a disappointing 2015.

Half-back Chris Sandow will be better for a full pre-season with the Wolves and more, too, will be expected of hooker Daryl Clark, the 2014 Man of Steel who by his own admission had a miserable time in his first year with the club.

The biggest improvers could be Catalans Dragons, who have made a host of exciting signings and are still hoping to lure the controversial Willie Mason to the south of France.

The departure of experienced players Scott Dureau, Elliott Whitehead, Benjamin Garcia, Ian Henderson, Zeb Taia and Michael Oldfield left huge holes but the Dragons appear to have more than adequately filled them with the likes of Richie Myler, Dave Taylor, Glenn Stewart, Pat Richards, Justin Horo, Paul Aiton and Jodie Broughton, with or without Mason who is trying to obtain the necessary paperwork to make the move.

Hull, too, have high hopes after some impressive recruitment but it could be a long, hard season for city rivals Hull KR, who will be desperately hoping that skipper Terry Campese can stay fit for the duration this time. Huddersfield will be competitive with former Melbourne hooker Ryan Hinchcliffe pulling the strings. Castleford, too, are guaranteed to be pushing for a top-four spot under the shrewd guidance of Daryl Powell.

Salford and Widnes have prospered in pre-season friendlies but they look sure to be involved in another scrap near the foot of the table, along with Wakefield who had to battle it out in the £1million game to ensure their survival in 2015.