Early test for Hull as clubs plot title assault on 2010 champions Wigan

AN EXPLOSIVE Humberside derby is almost a gentle start for Hull FC as they contemplate the bigger picture of a hugely testing opening few weeks in Engage Super League XVI.

Given last month's confirmation that the 2011 campaign will kick-off with Millennium Magic in Cardiff, there is not the usual sense of expectation ahead of today's full fixture announcement.

Supporters have already long known who they will be squaring up to on that opening weekend.

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However, a quick glance over the initial early skirmishes in the coming campaign and it becomes abundantly clear the Airlie Birds face potentially some of their hardest appointments up front.

After that Round One kick-off with Hull KR in Wales, Richard Agar's men face deposed champions Leeds Rhinos the following week in the televised Sky game at KC Stadium on Friday February 18 before visiting a Huddersfield Giants side who came within 80 minutes of reaching Old Trafford.

"Our first five games are against top eight opposition so we know it's going to be a tough start," he admitted. "That includes the current champions Wigan on top of that opening derby and then we face Leeds so it's pretty interesting. Easter is also looking pretty difficult as well as we're over in France the week before and then we have another Rovers derby before going to Warrington.

"Our squad will really be tested over that period but we know that anyway."

Agar believes his group will be in better shape to open the season, however, given they have only made two new signings – Castleford's Joe Westerman and Harlequins flier Will Sharp.

"We've started the last couple of years reasonably well," he said, having memorably won at St Helens in Sean Long's debut game last season.

"This time around we've not got too many changes to our squad either so our training is a little further ahead as are the systems we have in place.

"We've got some players who've had post-season operations but they should all be back for Round One, Lee Radford the only one in question.

"If we can negotiate the friendlies pretty well – which is something we've done well in the past – then hopefully we can gain some early momentum when it all kicks off."

Doubts about the future of Crusaders – who went into administration earlier this month – have been eased given their appearance in today's fixture list, allaying fears they may not be able to start the season.

Their game with Bradford in Wrexham is live on Sky on Saturday February 26.

Further notable early fixtures see Bradford, under the command of new coach Mick Potter, entertain Wigan in Round Two when the club hope to see Odsal swelled again following their 10,000 season ticket pledge, while Huddersfield welcome Castleford in a West Yorkshire derby shown live on Saturday February 19.

That same evening, Wakefield Trinity Wildcats are across the Channel at Catalans Dragons where they will quickly come up against former player Damien Blanch, the Ireland winger who moved to France at the end of the season, while Hull KR head to Challenge Cup holders Warrington the next day.

There is a re-run of the Wembley final when Leeds, under new coach Brian McDermott, visit Warrington on Saturday March 5 in another fixture being televised by Sky who will have covered all 14 clubs, at least twice, by Round Eight.

Easter sees the traditional run of derby showdowns with Leeds visiting Bradford on Thursday April 21 and Castleford hosting Wakefield Trinity Wildcats for potentially the fierce rivals' last-ever clash at Wheldon Road on Good Friday when Hull also welcome Hull KR for their second derby of the season.

Wakefield, who like Castleford are moving grounds at the end of the forthcoming season, host the Tigers for the final time at Belle Vue – unless they meet in the play-offs – on Sunday August 21.

Those play-offs begin on September 16/17/18 with the Grand Final on Saturday, October 8.

Meanwhile, Agar is pleased to see the RFL have condensed the Challenge Cup programme from the quarter-final stages onwards, after last year's debacle when there was a nine-week wait between the last eight fixtures and semi-finals.

That has now been reduced to just a fortnight, the quarter-finals being played on the weekend of July 23/24 and semi-finals on August 6/7 ahead of the August 27 Wembley showpiece.

"That makes more sense as there's no doubt it can cause a little disruption the previous way." he said. "Now the exciting stuff from the quarters onwards is closer together and you're not having to wait so long to continue; the last three rounds all come within a month so it is a smart option."

However, it does mean there is a gaping gap between the fifth round – May 21/22 – and quarter-finals but the RFL believe that is a small price to pay in order to ensure maximum momentum and profile is generated towards the decisive stages of the famous competition.

IMPORTANT FIXTURES AT A GLANCE

Millennium Magic: Millennium Stadium, Cardiff. Matches to be played over the weekend of February 12th and 13th with the Leeds v Bradford, Wakefield v Castleford and Hull v Hull KR derbies kicking off the season in true style.

World Club Challenge: Wigan Warriors v St George-Illawarra (DW Stadium) on February 27

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Challenge Cup Fourth round: Ties to be played on the weekend of May 7/8.

Fifth round: May 21/22

Quarter-finals: July 23/24

Semi-finals: August 6/7

Final: To be played at Wembley on August 27.

Super League play-offs: Begin September 16/17/18

Super League Grand Final: Old Trafford, October 8.