ESL Kicks off this weekend

Leeds Rhinos kick off another ESL season safe in the knowledge that as the undisputed best team in the world, its going to take a super human effort to knock them off their perch as ESL champions.

Coach Tony Smith travels to Hull for Saturday's opener bolstered by both the recent win over Canterbury Bulldogs in the World Club Challenge and the knowledge that his squad is looking at least as strong as last season.

Great Britain hooker Matt Diskin will not be back from injury until the end of May.

But former Wakefield skipper Gareth Ellis has been brought in to fill the gap left by the retirement of veteran Australian Juliyan Bailey, who all enjoyed a breakthrough season last year.

Only St Helens have ever managed to retain the Super League consecutive titles however and Leeds set themselves a tough benchmark when they claimed their first title in 32 years.

They lost only two games in the regular season and romped into the play-offs with a record nine-point lead over Bradford Bulls, whom they also beat in a tough Grand Final at Old Trafford in October.

Smith refuses to be drawn on whether Bradford will once again provide his side's main opposition.

"I don't think it will be harder to win the title than it was to win it," he said.

"It is a challenge whatever you do. We had a lot of pressure last year, leading the competition and with everybody gunning for us.

"I think there is a lot of improvement in our team but a lot of other teams have recruited well, so we are gearing up for a really competitive season."

Smith is hoping Leeds will feel the benefits of working with the England rugby union squad, and particularly with Dave Alred, who has helped hone Jonny Wilkinson's unrivalled kicking technique.

Wigan, Hull, St Helens and Bradford look like the four teams capable of mounting a sustained challenge to Leeds this season.

Hull's bid to get off to a flier against the champions have not been helped however by the chest muscle injury which has ruled out their biggest signing, New Zealand forward Stephen Kearney, out of their opening match.

They will however have Australian winger Nathan Blacklock fit to make his competitive debut.

Bradford have beefed up their pack by signing Andy Lynch from Castleford and Brad Meyers from Brisbane, but arguably their biggest boost has come from having experienced half-back Robbie Paul fit again after an injury-plagued 2004.

On the negative side, New Zealand test centre Shontayne Hape will miss the first three months of the campaign with a knee injury and new signing Ryan Hudson is suspended pending the outcome of a doping investigation.

Once mighty Wigan also have injury problems with captain Andy Farrell, who needed knee surgery after leading Great Britain in November's Tri-Nations defeat by Australia, expected to miss the first month at least and Luke Davico not expected to play any part in the campaign.

St Helens' preparations have been disrupted by New Zealand second row Michael Smith's decision to quit the club just four days before their opening match at home to Widnes.

Australian Jamie Lyon will make his Saints debut. Lyon quit Parramatta at the start of last season saying he had lost his appetite for the game but reported this week that he has recovered his enthusiasm.

For the teams outside the battle for a top six finish and progress to the play-offs this will be a particularly tough season as two teams are to be relegated to enable French outfit Perpignan to join the Super League in 2006.

Newcomers Leigh are widely tipped to be one of the two clubs dropping down with Widnes and Salford also regarded as vulnerable.

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