Wakefield Trinity are used to beginning their pre-season campaign against the reigning champions, often having come off the back of a battle with relegation themselves.
But the balance of power has swung and Trinity have finished above Rhinos in two of the past three Super League seasons despite the gulf in resources.
Under the astute management of coach Chris Chester and chief executive Michael Carter the Belle Vue-based side have been rebuilt since finishing bottom of Super League in 2015.
Fifth in each of the past two seasons, Chester has quietly been assembling a squad capable of competing on even terms with all 11 top-flight rivals. However, he believes next year will present Trinity with the biggest challenge since he took charge at Easter, 2016, which gives today’s game an added importance.
“It is probably going to be the most competitive Super League season so far,” predicted Chester. “We are happy with our achievements, getting into the top five the past two years, but this year is going to be totally different.
“Every team has improved. Hull KR have brought in a lot of quality, Warrington will be strong again and St Helens have brought over three top-quality Australians. There will be no easy games; it will be very, very competitive.”
Chester includes Rhinos among his list of teams who will be better in 2019.
“I am looking forward to seeing them play,” he said of this morning’s hosts. “They’ve got some real quality. They have lost Ryan Hall and a couple of others, but the quality they’ve brought in is very good. It is going to take time for those new players to bed in, but I think it is great for the competition that teams like Leeds are able to attract that quality.”
Wakefield will have two new faces and a returning one on show, having included Danny Brough, Craig Kopczak and George King in their 21-man squad.
Kopczak, the former Bradford and Huddersfield prop recruited for Salford, will add size and experience to an already formidable pack and King played for Warrington in both last season’s major finals, but Brough’s addition is arguably Super League’s most intriguing piece of closed-season business.
The former Man of Steel, 35, who played for Wakefield from 2008-2010, has returned in a swap deal that saw Scott Grix go the other way. Chester is confident the playmaker’s arrival has made Wakefield a better team already and said: “He has shown real leadership qualities. If we can build on that we are going to be a head team to beat.”
Exactly what Leeds’s ambitions are for next year remain to be seen. Having finished ninth in 2018, 10th after the Qualifiers, climbing into the top half of the table would be a significant improvement.
In 2017 Rhinos were second and won the Grand Final just 12 months after a battle against relegation and expectations at new-look Headingley Stadium are high, but the current Leeds squad is not the one that won eight Super League titles in 14 seasons.
Veteran forward Jamie Jones-Buchanan, 37, is the last man standing from the ‘golden generation’ and is poised to retire at the end of the season.
However, seven Leeds players featured for England Academy when they whitewashed Australian Schoolboys in a two-Test series this month and, in a change of tactic from recent years, Rhinos have opened the chequebook to bring in three internationals from the NRL. Prop Trent Merrin (hip injury) and centre Konrad Hurrell (quad) miss today’s game, but stand-off Tui Lolohea is set to debut.
Perhaps most significantly, Leeds have a new man at the helm in Australian David Furner, who played for Rhinos in 2003 and 2004 and is a former coach of Canberra Raiders.
“Preparation has been really good,” said Furner. “We are at that point in pre-season where the players are keen for a game.
“Boxing Day is a game that the fans and players get excited about. We are going to put out our strongest team available.”
Furner has big boots to fill. Brian McDermott, sacked last summer with Kevin Sinfield and James Lowes taking over on a temporary basis, is the most successful coach in the club’s history, though his style of play did not always delight the fans.