A summer affair for richer, for poorer

Dave Hadfield assesses the winners and losers of Super League's first season
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The Independent Online
When St Helens play Wigan in the Stones Premiership final at Old Trafford today, it will be the last act in a season they might hope would never end. Across the Pennines at Leeds, the mood is just a little different. "Thank God that's over," their chief executive, Alf Davies, said.

The contrasting fortunes of two of Britain's biggest rugby league clubs sum up much of what has gone wrong - and right - in the first year of Super League.

Saints are bidding today to complete a treble of Cup, Super League and Premiership, so the season has been outstandingly successful for them in playing terms. Their average gate has topped five figures for the first time in 20 years. Leeds have declined from runners-up to 10th out of 12 and their average attendance is their worst for a decade. It is still, by Davies' brutally honest assessment, better than they deserve. "Gates of 8,500 for the rubbish we have served up are a miracle," he said. "Clubs like Bradford and Saints have done brilliantly, on and off the field. But, if we were Saints, we would have to be disappointed with their gates. If we had been playing like that, we would be getting 15,000."

Saints' rise this season has been spectacular. "There was an opportunity to re-launch rugby league, to become born-again on the back of Super League and summer rugby," their chief executive, David Howes, said. Employing a street-wise operator like him was the first big step forward. The next was breaking the world transfer record to sign Paul Newlove, followed by the sacking of one successful coach - Eric Hughes - to bring in another, Shaun McRae, from Australia. All three decisions had their critics, but each has been vindicated.

It has not been cheap, however. "We have to explain to our public that we are not going to be bidding for every world-class player that becomes available," Howes said. The striking thing about Saints' approach to presenting the game to that public has been its simplicity. Where other clubs have often missed the mark with entertainment packages before matches, Saints put on their Academy match at the right time for early arrivals to watch, they have a bit of fun involving local people and a youth in a dog costume - the hugely popular Saint Bernard. It is basic stuff - even a little corny - but it has worked. The match-day atmosphere at Knowsley Road is unpretentious and vibrant.

The contrast with Headingley is telling. While Howes was a late convert to summer rugby, Davies and Leeds were still dead against it when the decision was made.

Despite that, Leeds were expected to make a good fist of staging the game in the context of an afternoon's entertainment. Instead, their efforts have been, all too often, embarrassing. "We haven't got it right. We tried too much, too soon," Davies said. "When we have tried to have bands on, we have been flooded with complaints from residents while they have just been tuning up."

Leeds have rarely hit the right note all season. "There isn't anything that any of us can be proud of," Davies said. "We've got to look at ourselves and say that we are responsible for the way things have gone."

Davies points to the demoralising effects of the Challenge Cup semi-final defeat by Bradford and Craig Innes's walk-out. But good clubs ride these blows, as Saints did when they lost Scott Gibbs in mid-season; although it was noticeable that their finances did not allow his transfer fee to be re-invested - it was needed to balance the books.

There is always next season, by which time Leeds should be under new ownership, with money available for the right sort of experienced players to dovetail with their good crop of youngsters.

"It can't get any worse," Davies said. If they win at Old Trafford today, Saints might just wonder whether it can possibly get much better.

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