OPINION: Top 5 fixtures in the pre-season calendar

Ahead of the pre-season campaign beginning on Boxing Day, TotalRL.com looked at the top five clashes in the schedule before the beginning of the Super League season.

1. Leeds Rhinos vs Wakefield Wildcats (26th January – Headingley Carnegie Stadium)

leedswakeyWhat better way to begin the rugby league calendar than a clash between two sides who had huge seasons in 2015 for different reasons.

Leeds were ran away with the competition, winning the League Leader’s Shield, the Challenge Cup and the Super League Grand Final and will be looking to hit the ground running on Boxing Day.

New signings Beau Fallon and Keith Galloway are set to get their first taste of rugby league in the Northern Hemisphere.

The game will also be a chance for a number of youngsters to step up after Kevin Sinfield and Jamie Peacock’s departure and also the absence of England internationals Zak Hardaker, Ryan Hall and Kallum Watkins.

Wakefield, on the other hand, had a very different 2015, finding themselves at the foot of the Super League for the majority of the season.

But the summer has seen 10 new faces at the club and things began to pick up when Brian Smith took charge. Victory in the Million Pound Game saw the Wildcats confirm their Super League status for 2016, but ultimately they will be looking to get off to a better start this time around.

2. Newcastle Thunder vs Widnes Vikings (9th January – Kingston Park)

widnesWidnes’ kit launch at the 2015 Magic Weekend proved to be a huge success in Newcastle, with all proceeds going to The Bobby Robson Foundation – who was formerly manager of the city’s football side, Newcastle United.

Whilst hosting Magic Weekend at St. James Park in Newcastle was also seen as a huge success, rugby league must continue to expand itself in the North-East.

Newcastle Thunder, who were formerly based in Gateshead, have the opportunity to face a Super League side and while the short-term benefit of a small pay-out through the turnstiles is a huge bonus, the opportunity to continue to push rugby league in the area is equally important.

New head coach Keith Christie has the opportunity to try out a number of new recruits at Newcastle, while Widnes themselves will be looking to rotate the squad and find their best starting XIII for their campaign.

3. Leigh Centurions vs Wigan Warriors (17th January – Leigh Sports Village)

leighAfter a reality check in the Super 8s Qualifiers, Leigh have gone away and recruited some big names for their Championship season in 2016.

Paul Rowley has raised an eyebrow or two with his off-season signings, with Salford quartet Rangi Chase, Reni Maitua, Harrison Hansen and Cory Paterson particularly impressive.

Former Australia and Catalans centre Willie Tonga and compatriot Dayne Weston have also joined the Leigh ranks ahead of 2016 and the pre-season friendly against Wigan Warriors gives them a valuable chance to prove they can compete against Super League sides.

Wigan, meanwhile, have added just Sam Tomkins and Willie Isa to their side for the upcoming campaign and head coach Shaun Wane has put his faith in a number of young players such as George Williams and Dominic Manfredi.

The friendly with Leigh offers Williams and co the chance to prove their worth against a side who are ruthless in attack and begin as they mean to go on next season.

4. Huddersfield Giants vs Catalans Dragons (23rd January – John Smith’s Stadium)

huddersfieldShould Todd Carney remain fit and a poor track record this side of the British Channel is improved, Catalans could be a tough side to face next season.

They have recruited where needed in their side, with outside-backs Pat Richards and Jodie Broughton giving them more options on the edges and forwards Dave Taylor, Justin Horo and Glenn Stewart all exciting prospects in 2016.

Paul Aiton and Richie Myler have both joined from Catalans Dragons and Warrington Wolves respectively to give them experience in Super League and potentially the remedy to away day blues.

Huddersfield have also recruited some exciting players to their side with Ryan Hinchliffe and Sam Rapira coming over from the NRL.

The future of Brett Ferres should be cleared by the time the friendly with Catalans comes around and the Giants will have an idea how they will be lining up in the forward pack next season.

Both sides are united in their aims to push into the top four next season and the pre-season meeting offers a chance to see how they compare against their fellow competitors.

5. Hull FC vs Hull KR (24th January – KC Stadium)

hull fcThe Hull derby is always a feisty affair and offers both sets of squads a fixture which is almost a replica of the intensity of a Super League contest.

Both sides will be waiting for an update on their captain who remains on the side-lines, with Hull FC’s Gareth Ellis and Hull KR’s Terry Campese both returning to action after a long lay-off in 2016.

For Hull FC, the fixture will give a lot of overseas recruits the first taste of the derby and a tough test in pre-season which their other opponents Doncaster and York may not be able to offer.

Lee Radford’s side will be looking to hit the ground running, with a number of high-profile signings including Frank Pritchard, Sika Manu, Carlos Tuimavave and Mahe Fonua.

Their cross-city rivals have added a number of fledgling English players to their squad, including Ryan Shaw, Thomas Minns and Ian Thornley who under the stewardship of Jamie Peacock will all be keen to impress in the ‘friendly’ derby.

After missing out on the top eight last season, Chris Chester and his squad know the hard work begins from day one and will be out to edge their rivals into the Super 8s next season.