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Posted by southstander on February 08 2007 - 11:25:45

Top of the World?

By Ricky Wilby

With all the pre-season friendlies out of the way the focus now turns to the Super league season, and whether Leeds can lift themselves out of the poor form that has seen no additions to the trophy cabinet for the last 2 seasons.

Leeds go into the 2007 season joint third favourites to finish top of the table with Wigan, with Saints clear favourites after their dominance last season, and Hull FC second favourites.

Here we look at the Leeds side that is to try and repeat the heroics of 2004.

With new players coming in with Brent Webb, Kylie Leuluai and last seasons late signings Jamie Thackeray and Clinton Toopi, it is clear that Tony Smith has realised that he lacked size in the props in 2006. He has looked to balance the side up with Thackeray and Leuluai added to the current props Nick Scruton and Ryan Bailey.

Once Chev Walker and Richard Mathers had agreed to play their rugby elsewhere for 2007, the Leeds management quickly moved to snap up the New Zealand test fullback Brent Webb and New Zealand centre Clinton Toopi, who will be looking to set up a good partnership and understanding with fellow international centre Keith Senior.

Brent Webb is certainly an exciting player and if he can reproduce his New Zealand test form for Leeds, then Leeds fans have lots to look forward to. Tony Smith has also bulked up his pack and has added to last seasons late season signing Jamie Thackeray with Kylie Leuluai. Kylie has come to Leeds with a reputation for being a hard-hitting, tough tackling prop, something Leeds have lacked since the retirement of Barrie McDermott. The Jury is still out on Thackeray and Toopi , their form last year was patchy to say the least and we are all hoping that a pre-season with Tony Smith will have let them settle into the way we play. Both are Test quality internationals and will be hoping to get their places back come November.

The departures of Walker and Mathers are added to the retirement of Willie Poaching, however into the 20 come Danny Williams, Ashley Gibson and Ian Kirke, Gibson and Williams are promoted from the academy set up and Kirke has been given a reward for some glimpses of quality in 2006.

Despite Smith seeing the obvious deficiencies we had at prop last year he has not seen the equally obvious problems out on the wing. 2006 is now seen as a settling in year for Scott Donald and he needs to produce the performances that Tony Smith and Gary Hetherington hailed when he signed. On the other wing will be a 'toss up' between Lee Smith, Williams and Gibson. All have obvious strengths and weaknesses and whoever gets the shirt from the off will be under pressure to perform week in week out to keep their place.

Whilst the wing spots look to be our weak points for 2007, there is no doubting that the strongest area of the Leeds squad is in the Back Row. With 2006 player of the year Gareth Ellis, Jamie Peacock, Ali Lauitiiti, Jamie Jones Buchanan, Ian Kirke and captain Kevin Sinfield all vying for the three spots available at the back of the scrum.

Smith and Hetherington have come out to publicly say there is money in the kitty and should the right player become available then Leeds will be looking to sign them. We should all hope that should we sign someone mid-season that they have the same impact of Ali Lauitiiti.

Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow have a lot to prove this year. Danny needs to prove that he is over his injury problems that have dogged him over the last two years and Rob needs to prove that he can step up to fill the spot vacated by Sean Long in the Great Britain set-up.

Another player with a point to prove will be Hooker Matt Diskin. Matt had a career threatening knee injury at the end of an outstanding 2004 season, and since returning mid-season in 2005 has not hit the heights he did in the Superleague winning year. Diskin will be out to prove everyone wrong in 2007 and prove that 2004 was not just a flash in the pan.

Leeds on paper have to potential to win silverware, but unfortunately so do other sides in the top 5 or 6. This is make or break time for Tony Smith and he needs to stand up and get the team playing the entertaining rugby that we all enjoyed in 2004. I fear that should Tony Smith not win some silverware this year it could be the end for him.

So here is to a successful 2007.

Just for the optimists among you, Leeds are 9/2 to win the Challenge Cup, 13/2 to finish top after the 27 rounds of Super League and 5/1 to win the Grand Final. Now there’s a nice treble.

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