The 2007 Super League season kicks off on February 4 when the reigning champions St Helens face Huddersfield Giants. Both sides will be looking to steal the march on the other ten sides whose seasons do not start for another week.
The competition for places in play-offs will be intense as teams outside the traditional top four rugby league powerhouses of St Helens, Leeds, Bradford and Wigan continue to close the gap.
Al Jazeera looks at the teams chances as Super League XI gets under way.
|Twelve teams will contest Super League XII [GALLO/GETTY]|
St Helens - Last season: Champions
The champions who swept all before them last season look set to do the same again with a largely unchanged squad and a wealth of experience.
Jamie Lyon, the winner of the 2005 Man of Steel award for the competition's best player, will be missed now he has returned to Australia but the loss will be softened by the arrival of centre Matt Gidley. The former Newcastle Knight does not have the fast feet of Lyon but more than makes up for that with his superb handling, the St Helens wingers look set to benefit from his recruitment.
Young prop James Graham and hooker James Roby made a big impact last year and are tipped for great things and coach Daniel Anderson has said that there are more talented young players who could make the breakthrough in 2007.
Sean Long, Paul Sculthorpe and Keiron Cunningham will continue to lead the title challenge and the fans can expect more of the free flowing rugby they saw last season.
Hull FC - Last season: 2nd
Success is now expected for the Airlie Birds. After winning the Challenge Cup in 2005 they brought in Australian coach Peter Sharp last April to push the side to the next level.
Hull will struggle to overhaul St Helens as the top side in Super League but with a number of young British talents and coach who seems to be able to get the best out of them they are likely to push for the Grand Final again.
|Horne's Hull will pushing Saints again |
The team will again be built around Paul Cooke and and Richard Horne in the half-backs and the physicality of their hard-working pack. Kirk Yeaman was a star in the centres last season and earning himself a place in the Great Britain side - more of the same is expected from him.
Matt Sing, one of the most prolific try-scorers in Australia, will add some extra firepower to Hull's back line after arriving from the North Queensland Cowboys.
Leeds Rhinos - Last season: 3rd
A disappointing 2006 for the Rhinos ended with them outside the top two for the first time in four years as they frequently struggle to find their rhythm. Despite this, coach Tony Smith has refused to make major changes preferring to stick with what still looks like a very strong squad.
The excellent kicking game of captain Kevin Sinfield combined with the exciting talents of the half-back partnership of Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire means Leeds are a serious threat yet again. The Rhinos enjoy keeping the ball alive and despite playing in the pack, forwards such as Gareth Ellis, Jamie Peacock and Ali Lauitiiti are also prepared to throw the ball around.
The performances of two new recruits in the backs could make or break Leeds' season. Brent Webb has arrived from the New Zealand Warriors to replace Richie Mathers. The full-back is at the top of his game after a superb showing in the Tri-Nations so he could provide a real boost to Leeds' attack. Clinton Toopi looked lost after joining the club in July and struggled in several games but if the big centre finds his feet he could be devastating in Super League.
Bradford Bulls - Last season: 4th
2006 started well for the Bulls with them winning their third World Club Challenge trophy in four years and ended with them missing out on a Grand Final appearance for the first time in six years. In between they lost their highly successful coach to rivals Wigan, and he was followed by influential prop forward Stuart Fielden.
Bradford now have a young British coach in Steve McNamara and a team which is still capable of making a big impact in the Super League.
|18-year-old Sam Burgess is tipped for |
international honours [GALLO/GETTY]
Two second-rowers, David Solomona and Glenn Morrison, are the club's major signings. Morrsion brings with him a wealth of experience in the NRL with the Parramatta Eels and North Queensland Cowboys while Solomona joined from Wakefield and is known as an excellent ball-handler.
But it is another of the club's forwards who is creating much of the pre-season buzz. The powerful-running, big-hitting 18-year-old Sam Burgess, who team-mate Terry Newton described as the new Adrian Morley. Burgess, who says he can play anywhere in the pack, is still growing but is widely tipped for international honours this year.
Salford City Reds - Last season: 5th
Coach Karl Harrison has gradually been building Salford into a Super League force to be reckoned with since they were promoted from National League One at the end of 2003. They started 2006 by winning four of their first five games and ended it with their first appearance in the play-offs.
Salford's recruitment is unlikely to get too many fans excited, the biggest name is Mark Edmondson, a prop who was part of St Helens 2004 Challlenge Cup winning side before joining Sydney City Roosters for 2006 where his time was less than succesful due to injury.
Harrison beat several other clubs to his signature and will be hoping the big prop can bounce back and, with fellow new signing Michael Korkidas, take Salford forward. Hooker Malcom Alker will aiming to lead the Reds to further improvements after apparently turning down moves to Australia and other Super League clubs.
Warrington Wolves - Last season: 6th
Adrian Morley is the Wolves big signing for 2007, in more ways than one. The Great Britain prop forward or second-rower is returning to Super League after six seasons in Australia's ultra-competitive NRL.
|Morley spent six seasons in Australia's NRL |
Warrington have been threatening for a couple of seasons to mount a challenge to Super League's traditional powerhouse teams of St Helens, Wigan, Leeds and Bradford and coach Paul Cullen will hoping that Morley can add some aggression to their push for silverware.
He'll provide some inspiration for the club's young players and will be a favourite with the fans but his notorious indiscipline could cost the Wolves in crucial matches. During his time with the Sydney Roosters he missed 27 matches through suspension.
The Wolves also have two of the league's most exciting players in international centre Martin Gleeson and half-back Lee Briers, who at times seems to win matches on his own with his superb kicking game and quick mind.
Harlequins - Last season: 7th
Super League's London franchise had a mixed season after linking up with the famous rugby union club. They are largely expected to struggle this season and seem unlikely to break into the top six but coach Brian McDermott certainly has some creative players on his books.
The Harlequins seem to be spoiled for choice in the half-backs with Scott Hill, a stand-off who went to last year's Australian Grand Final with the Melbourne Storm, the star signing. McDermott will be looking to Hill to provide some inspiration and on-field direction for a team that last year sometimes seemed to run out of ideas.
It is likely his scrumbase partner will be one of the trio of Danny Orr, who is looking to revive his career after a disappointing time with Wigan, France international Julien Rinaldi and veteran play-maker Henry Paul.
The returning Paul may also fancy his chances in the number 9 jersey.
Wigan Warriors - Last season: 8th
A dreadful start to 2006 threatened the unthinkable - relegation - for the team that dominated the game in the lates 1980s and early 1990s.
A major shake-up saw Great Britain coach Brian Noble replace Ian Millward and one of the game's most exciting forwards, Stuart Fielding, brought in to provide the leadership in the pack that was missing after Andy Farrell's move to rugby union.
|Wigan fans will be expecting big things from |
Trent Barrett [GALLO/GETTY]
The club still has the power to bring in star players despite last year's lowly finish with Trent Barrett, an Australian international stand-off, one of the players most eagerly awaited by Super League fans. He'll need to develop an early understanding with half-back partner Thomas Leuluai, a new recruit from the Harlequins, because the expectation from the fans wil be massive.
Noble will be looking for flying winger Mark Calderwood to add the tries after a tricky first season with the club.
Huddersfield Giants - Last season: 9th
The Giants reached last year's Challenge Cup final but their league campaign was less successful and the end of season saw the departure of 10 players, including former Brisbane Broncos star Michael De Vere.
Coach Jon Sharp has brought in utlity back Jamal Lolesi and prop John Skandalis from the West Tigers in Australia but the headlines have grabbed by the capture of former Wakefield and Castleford hooker Ryan Hudson.
Hudson, a former England Under-21 captain, had just signed for Bradford and was being tipped for Great Britain when in March 2005 he was banned for drug use. He's now back after his two year ban and at 26 he has time to rebuild his career but the Giants might not get the best out of him until he regains his match sharpness.
Wakefield Trinity Wildcats - Last season: 10th
After escaping relegation on the last day of season in 2006 the West Yorkshire club go into this season with Super League's biggest squad. Coach John Kear will be hoping that his 10 new signings will help offest the loss of some of the team's big names.
New Zealand second-rower David Solomona will be the most keenly missed but his big money move to the Bulls left Kear with money to spend.
|The money from Solomona's transfer funded a |
Wakefield signing spree [GALLO/GETTY]
The Wildcats picked up several recruits from relegated Castleford Tigers including Danny Sculthorpe and flyer Waine Pryce but they will both sit out the beginning of season due to injury.
Crucially the Wildcats even still have bit of money left in the bank after the Solomona sale and could continue to strengthen once the season is under way.
Catalan Dragons - Last season: 12th
They finished bottom of Super League last season but stayed up because of their immunity for relegation, many people will be expecting the same again in 2007. The team includes the great Stacey Jones at scrum-half and he is still more than capable despite the advancing years, but the Dragons are guilty of over-reliance on the New Zealander.
There has been a large turnover of playing staff at the team which gives Super League its European flavour and they have recruited a number of players from the NRL, the most eagerly anticipated being Adam Mogg, a centre or winger from the Canberra Raiders.
With another Australian, Justin Murphy, on the other side of the field the Dragons could be deadly out wide. Murphy topped the try scoring charts last season with 26 despite his side's poor form.
Hull KR - Last season: Promoted
The step up from National League One is always tough and Hull KR can be expected to be battling near the bottom of the table throughout the season.
Mark O'Neill's move to Craven Park gives him the chance to kick-start his career after a tough year with the Leeds Rhinos where the former Wests Tigers captain suffered a shoulder injury just minutes into his debut and managed only 11 appearances after that. The prop forward or second rower is back to full fitness and his experience is what the club needs to inspire them.
The highlight for the fans could be the derby matches against arch-rivals Hull FC.
Source: Al Jazeera