Super League: Can anyone stop Leeds Rhinos in 2016?

By Matt NewsumBBC Sport
Watch the best moments of the 2015 Rugby League season
First Utility Super League
Starts: Thursday, 4 February
Coverage: Weekly TV highlights from the Super League Show; radio commentaries on Radio 5 live and BBC local radio; reports and live text commentaries on BBC Sport website

Leeds Rhinos dominated English domestic rugby league in 2015, lifting all three trophies available to give their departing trio of Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai a perfect send-off.

With the celebrations now just a memory, those achievements have been consigned to the record books. The new season brings a clean slate for all Super League clubs.

Brian McDermott's side are still the team to beat despite their high-profile exits, but their rivals have strengthened in a bid to close the gap.

BBC Sport examines who might be fighting at the top, middle and bottom in the 21st year of the summer-era game.

'Every club wants to do what we've done'

Kallum Watkins' burst of speed stuns Dragons

Leeds, England's most successful club since Super League began in 1996, joined Bradford and St Helens as domestic treble winners.

However, they begin 2016 without their key trio of Sinfield, Peacock and Leuluai.

Instead the onus is on younger talents such as Kallum Watkins and Man of Steel Zak Hardaker to carry their trophy hopes into the new campaign.

"It's a huge task. Last year is gone now and we've got to challenge ourselves," England centre Watkins told BBC Sport.

"Every club wants to do what we've done. We know it's going to be difficult. We only just got there last year and it could have gone either way.

"It's a new challenge. We're focusing on a very good start and that's important, with the World Club Series and some huge games coming up."

Pretenders to the throne

Williams 'wizardry' shines for Wigan

Wigan were unfortunate to miss out on the big prizes in 2015, losing the League Leaders' Shield in the final seconds to the Rhinos and then being narrowly beaten in a thrilling Grand Final by the same opponents.

Half-back Matty Smith is confident the Warriors can again compete, with a young, talented squad aided by the return of full-back Sam Tomkins from his spell in the NRL with New Zealand Warriors.

"It's there for us if we want it, but we've got to work hard," Smith said. "We beat every top side last year but lost to some of the lower sides, so it's about finding some consistency."

Meet Giants flier 'Jerry'

England winger Jermaine McGillvary was Super League's leading try scorer in 2015, but not even his feats could turn Huddersfield into a champion side.

Having again proved consistency with a top-four finish, the Giants were well beaten in the semi-finals by Wigan and again missed out on Old Trafford.

"It's not a one-off, it's getting repetitive, people calling us chokers, it's frustrating so it needs addressing by the players and coaching staff," McGillvary told BBC Radio Leeds.

"It's us as players letting ourselves down. In the big games we don't play smartly. We think as individuals, we need to do the simple things first, we're trying to do the big things."

McDonnell scores 'crackerjacker' try

Only Wigan came closer than St Helens to breaking the Leeds monopoly in 2015. Saints missed out on silverware after suffering semi-final defeats by the Rhinos in the Super League play-offs and the Challenge Cup.

"To miss out as we did was very disappointing but we weren't far away," said Saints prop Alex Walmsley, a Man of Steel nominee.

"The greatest wins often come off the back of the biggest losses, and that's something that has stood in my mind as well as the team as a whole.

"It's made the off-season a bit longer and motivated us as a club to do the right things and get back to Old Trafford or Wembley to pick up some silverware."

And out come the Wolves...

Warrington's Ashton Sims uses in-game microphone v Leigh

The old joke among rugby league fans is that it is "always our year" for Warrington, but they never quite carry out their aims.

Last season was a tough, transitional one for Tony Smith's side, despite the bright displays of players such as Ashton Sims.

"We had high hopes and didn't reach them but we've bolstered our squad," said the Fiji international prop.

"Kurt Gidley brings a lot of stability. He's an old head and he's been really impressive in the warm-up matches.

"We need intensity week in, week out. We beat all the top teams except Huddersfield."

Can Cas be classy again?

Shenton finishes stunning team try

Despite a disappointing start to the 2015 Super League season, Castleford recorded impressive victories against Leeds, St Helens and Wigan and finished comfortably in the top eight.

"We just missed out on the top four despite the fact we contributed to some great games," said Tigers half-back Luke Gale.

"Having 10 new faces probably showed a bit - but coming towards the end, we started to gel. [Coach] Daryl Powell says quite openly we want the top four, and we're not frightened by that."

Frank the Tank

Frank Pritchard among New Zealand scorers

After just sneaking into the Super 8s last season, Hull FC have made big strides to improve, notably with their recruitment of blockbusting New Zealand forward Frank "The Tank" Pritchard.

With him, Sika Manu and Mahe Fonua among the new arrivals, Lee Radford's side are desperate to end their 11-year wait for a major trophy.

"We've been underachievers for the last few seasons, but they've gone out and signed some players so it's up to us as a team to fulfil the supporters' dreams," Pritchard told BBC's Super League Show.

Will the Dragons learn to fly away?

Myler scores try of the week

Among the new arrivals at Catalans Dragons is former Warrington half-back Richie Myler, with the Perpignan club desperate to improve their away form.

A failure to win more than two league games away from the Stade Gilbert Brutus dented their top-four hopes, undermining a strong home record.

"You can't compare it to last season," Myler told BBC Sport. "There has been a change of players but in the past we didn't win away from home too much so we're trying to rectify that.

"The home form was really good, so if we can replicate that and pick up some away wins then we won't be doing too badly."

Calmer waters at Salford

Josh Griffin
Josh Griffin (right) gets to grips with Wakefield's Danny Kirmond

Salford turned out to be Super League's soap opera in 2015, but they hope to have torn up the script with a much calmer outlook under director of rugby Tim Sheens.

The Red Devils maintained their top-tier spot amid financial issues relating to player salaries, the departure of head coach Iestyn Harris, stadium problems and a council dispute.

"We've become a bit of a laughing stock, I suppose you could call it, and people were calling us that," centre Josh Griffin told BBC Radio Manchester.

"I think the club is in a much better place now. It was hard to deal with. You never know what's going to happen, but since Tim's come in he's really taken control of it."

Tipped to struggle

Try of the Week: Hanbury heroics

When Widnes were good in 2015, they were very good. However, too many narrow defeats saw them drop into the Qualifiers in the second stage of the campaign - which they came through to secure Super League status.

Some pundits have tipped the Vikings to struggle. Not that captain and influential playmaker Kevin Brown is taking notice.

"If we're in the bottom four again, we won't have achieved our goals," Brown said. "We set standards - and if we achieve them, we'll be in the top eight."

Backwards offload leads to Kelly try

Hull KR enjoyed a Wembley trip with a Challenge Cup final appearance in 2015 but injuries to key players such as Terry Campese and Albert Kelly hampered their league progress.

The Robins will begin the season without two of their key names, with Campese recovering from cruciate knee ligament damage and Shaun Lunt on his way back from an ankle operation.

"We know it hasn't been good by any means," back-rower James Donaldson said. "We've had a good pre-season in general but the games haven't gone to plan.

"Injuries to Terry and Shaun are massive but when they come back it'll be a boost to us."

'Never again'

Mortgages were on the line - Wakefield's Moore

Wakefield went through the drama and trauma of the Million Pound Game against Bradford to ensure their place in Super League.

"It's a scary one when your mortgage is due on the first of the month and you're playing in a game where you might not have a job the week after," said Wakefield captain Danny Kirmond.

"It's one we don't want to experience again, but everyone rallied round at a difficult and pressurised time. That experience will do us well going forward.

"We had to change something. We finished bottom of the league and we don't want that again."

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