Leeds Rhinos: The reigning champions have strengthened for their title defence
Last Updated: 01/02/13 2:24pm
Leeds Rhinos: once again the team to beat in Super League after their triumph at Old Trafford
After adding to their squad in the winter months and with their play-off record, few would bet against Leeds making it a hat-trick of titles.
At this time a year ago Brian McDermott said: "Although we are regarded as champions, we feel there is a lot of unfinished business because a number of our performances last year were below par." It is a sentiment that can be echoed coming into this season, too.
Coach: Brian McDermott (since November 2010)
Captain: Kevin Sinfield
2012 finish: 5th
In: Joel Moon (Salford), Mitch Achurch (Penrith Panthers), Joe Vickery (Tweed Heads), Paul McShane (returned from loan at Widnes)
Out: Shaun Lunt (returned after loan spell to Huddersfield), Brent Webb (Catalan), Weller Hauraki (Castleford)
Leeds were in fine form early in 2012, losing only once in their opening seven games, including a memorable 26-12 victory over NRL winners Manly to be crowned the World Club champions.
However, when the side travelled to Langtree Park to face St Helens in March, with their hair dyed pink for charity, the reigning champions looked a shadow of the side which had been crowned the best in the world a month earlier.
They went on to lose eight of their next 10 Super League fixtures and it wasn't until the play-offs at the end of the season when Leeds finally found their form again, starting with a 42-20 victory over the Wildcats at Headingley.
The Rhinos then went on to win twice away, starting in the South of France and then following up that triumph by beating Wigan, even though they were without Danny McGuire due to suspension.
Kevin Sinfield showed his leadership skills in the Grand Final and inspired Leeds to glory again at Old Trafford, beating Warrington 26-18 in a see-saw final that had seen the two teams locked at 14-all at the break.
Ins and outs
For the first time in a few years, Leeds have been proactive in the transfer market coming into the new season.
Since the start of 2012, Leeds have lost Brent Webb, Lee Smith and Weller Hauraki but they have more than filled the voids vacated by the departures in the off season.
Last year's Young Player of the Year, Zak Hardaker is handed the number one jersey to replace Webb and somewhat unknown Australian Mitch Achurch replaces Hauraki in the pack.
Possibly the biggest name coming into the Rhinos team for this year is centre Joel Moon from Salford. Moon was very impressive in his first season in Super League so it's no wonder the Rhinos were quick to snap him up.
Leeds never replaced Keith Senior in the centres, instead opting to utilise Carl Ablett out wide, so Moon still has big boots to fill.
Although Ablett was a more than adequate replacement for Senior, he too will seem like a new signing when he makes a likely move into his preferred position in the back row, somewhere he hasn't played regularly since 2009.
Another man hoping to fulfil his potential at Leeds is hooker Paul McShane, who spent a year on loan at Widnes last term. The Rhinos opted to loan Shaun Lunt from Huddersfield in 2012 rather than use McShane, but a year of regular Super League appearances at the Vikings should give McShane and Leeds added impetus in the pack.
Finally, Leeds have given a one-year contract to trialist Joe Vickery for 2013, which was good timing with the news Ben Jones-Bishop is due to spend six months on the side lines. The winger has scored four tries in pre-season.
Joel Moon: the centre has been signed after a successful season with Salford
Peter Smith has been covering rugby league for 19 years, joining the Yorkshire Evening Post in 1996. He is also a big fan of cycling and darts and has ghost written the autobiographies of Sky Sports pundits Barrie McDermott and John Kear, as well as Leeds legend Keith Senior.
Here are his thoughts on the season ahead...
"Assuming they actually finish in the top-eight, it doesn't really matter how Leeds Rhinos fare in the weekly Super League rounds, they will still go into the play-offs as one of the sides to beat.
Rhinos have been written off at the end of each of Brian McDermott's two regular seasons in charge, after finishing fifth on the Super League table.
They made history by storming through to win the Grand Final in 2011 and, in an even more remarkable feat, repeated the dose last year.
Leeds are now officially Super League's most successful club and, when it comes to big games, nobody does it better.
Rhinos have arguably a stronger squad now than in 2012. Their young players - Zak Hardaker, Stevie Ward and Kallum Watkins among them - are a year wiser and more experienced and they now boast one of the classiest back divisions in the competition, following Joel Moon's arrival from Salford City Reds.
Aussies Mitch Achurch and Joe Vickery are largely an unknown quantity, but both showed up well in pre-season games, while key men Danny McGuire and Jamie Peacock are raring to go after getting a rare full pre-season under their belt.
On-loan hooker Shaun Lunt will be missed and Leeds' pack is getting towards - or in some cases is well into - the veteran stage, but they have plenty of depth and some exciting youngsters in the under-19s waiting for a chance.
At some stage the past two years may catch up with them and an injury to skipper Kevin Sinfield would be a disaster, but it's a fairly safe bet Rhinos will be there or thereabouts again this year."