Leeds Rhinos to field near full-strength line-up for Festive Challenge against Wakefield Trinity

LEEDS RHINOS will field as near to a full-strength side as possible for their Wetherby Whaler Festive Challenge against Wakefield Trinity on Boxing Day – and voluntarily reduce capacity to 9,999 in light of recent Government recommendations regarding the pandemic.

Head coach Richard Agar is keen to see most of his frontline stars in action for their first hit-out of pre-season and will name a 22-man squad on Monday.

However, he yesterday confirmed that new signings Blake Austin, Aidan Sezer and James Bentley will all start against Wakefield at Headingley.

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It will probably be too early for their other new recruit – David Fusitu’a – to feature as he only flew into the country this week.

“We’re running very much as strong as we can in terms of our starting team,” said Agar.

“Really, every fit and available player that hasn’t got any little bumps or strains will play, probably with the exception of Matt Prior.

“Given where he’s at, and what we want to do with him in pre-season, having a game at this point in his pre-season is not going to be too beneficial for him.

“Matty is the only one who in terms of fitness and availability that we won’t consider for selection. But everyone else who is fit and well will be.”

Blake Austin is expected to partner Aidan Sezer in the halves for Leeds Rhinos in Boxing Day's Festive Challenge against Wakefield Trinity. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.

Agar’s stance on his captain Prior is understandable; the Australian prop turns 35 in May and, during the course of a season, gets through copious amounts of work for his side.

With Luke Gale and Rob Lui now departed, the chance to see new half-backs Sezer and Austin combining will certainly excite fans.

Although they have joined from Huddersfield Giants and Warrington Wolves respectively they did, of course, link as a partnership earlier in their careers with Canberra Raiders.

Asked about how promising they look in training, Agar said: “It’s early days but just the fact they played together before has given them a head start

Aidan Sezer in training at Headingley. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.

“It makes the communication and dialogue and any fix-ups needed a little easier.

“They have both had a really positive contribution.

“We ran some good ball stuff yesterday and they got on the same page very quickly.”

Agar hopes to get plenty out of the game and that is why he has decided to field such a strong side. “One of our reasons is we want to use it as part of our pre-season preparation and see how we go,” he said.

Leeds Rhinos head coach Richard Agar watches on during training. Picture: Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com.

“It’ll give an indication of where we are at. We’re definitely not expecting to be where we need to be come round one but, at the same time, I want the new signings and a couple of young guys to really experience what a home game at Headingley is all about.

“It will be a terrific atmosphere, hopefully a great crowd and they can get a feel for what it is all about as they are pretty special occasions.

“We have competition for places this year and pretty hot competition for round one so it definitely gives individuals a really good opportunity to say ‘I mean business this year and I’m in really good shape even this early’.”

Regarding the reduced capacity, the club had already sold 6,500 tickets. There will be limits on all remaining standing and seating positions and no option to purchase tickets on match day. There was a crowd of 10,106 when the sides last met on Boxing Day in 2019.

Rhinos operations director Sue Ward explained: “Our first priority is always the safety of our spectators, players and staff. I’d like to thank our local authorities in Leeds who we have been working with since the new Government legislation came into place so together we can find a solution that ensures Headingley remains a safe venue for our spectators to visit.”

The club – who have reported one first-team player has tested positive for Covid – says there will be no requirement to show vaccination status or a negative test to enter the stadium.

Leeds Rhinos' Matt Prior will not be risked in the Festive Challenge against Wakefield Trinity. Picture: Ed Sykes/SWpix.com.