Many Rhinos fans took a sharp intake of breath at the necessity for a stretcher for Kevin Sinfield last weekend at Hull. There is no question that the skipper, in the form of his life, will be greatly missed, but we've great cover with Gareth Ellis, and if pushed, Willie Poching. Also missing from last weeks seventeen are Lee Smith and Matt Diskin, both given an extra few days to recouperate from their injuries, hopefully in time to take on high-flying Salford at the Willows on monday afternoon.
It will be a somewhat different looking Rhinos side for the first Bulls visit of the season. With Smith out I'd expect Williams to start on the wing. Diskins' automatic replacement is Shane Millard with Ellis dropping to the loose forward slot. Although O'Neill was named in the twenty for the first time he hasn't made the seventeen meaning that Kirke will get a game after missing out at the KC last week. Ashley Gibson has been drafted into the squad as eighteenth man, and joins Jamie Jones-Buchanan who will be given a warm welcome back.
There are two Bulls players who will hopefully get a great reception from the Rhinos fans on their return to Headingley. Marcus Bai and Chris McKenna both wished to extend their stays at Headquarters, but Gary and Tony decided that they were surplus to requirements. They were great players for Leeds and deserve recognition for their efforts. On the other hand, feel free to 'boo' the phoney Welsh turncoat to your hearts content.
Noble has only one absentee from his first choice line-up with Paul Johnson ruled out. Vagana got the 'all clear' from the disciplinary on tuesday after leading with the elbow (non ball carrying arm) last saturday in the defeat against Warrington. It is a formidible line-up with the initial twenty-one being; Michael Withers, Marcus Bai, Ben Harris, Shontayne Hape, Lesley Vainikolo, Iestyn Harris, Paul Deacon, Joe Vagana, Ian Henderson, Chris Mckenna, Andy Lynch, Stanley Gene, Jamie Langley, Karl Pryce, Adam Watene, Brett Ferres, Matt Cook, Matt James, Craig Kopczak, Stuart Fielden, Marcus St Hilaire.
One relief for Rhinos players who prefer their cheekbones intact is that Terry Newton is still to make his Bulls debut as he continues his supension for last seasons attack on Sean Long.
The two sides did battle on four occasions last season with the honours being shared at two each. The aggregate score for the four games was 95-94 to the Bulls showing just how evenly matched the two teams were last season. Sadly, the Bulls won the one that counted, the Grand Final at Old Trafford.
Two Ex-Rhinos to cheer...and one to 'boo';
The loss of Sinfield, Smith and Diskin, along with the failure of the long awaited O'Neil debut to materialise mean that for me the Bulls have the smallest of edges in this one. To lose one key player is survivable, but for loose forward and hooker to both be missing means that I think we could be a bit too weak. On the flip-side, JJB, Kirke and Williams all make a welcome return from injury. Call me a traitor if you want, but I think that the roasting that the Bulls will have got after last weeks loss to the Wolves could make them just a little bit too hungry.
Thursday nights forecast is a bit of wind, but a very low chance of any rain. Temperatures should be a very springlike seven or eight degrees.
The bookies have given the Bulls a ten point start on the coupon, the fools, and for once I'd take them with that. Danny McGuire is 8/1 to score the first try, with Vainikolo ar 12/1 looking like a sounder bet. I really hope I'm very wrong on this but I just don't have a good feeling. Fingers crossed the boys prove me wrong.
There is just a short time left to get your predictions in in the tipping competition.
See you tomorrow, and enjoy the game.