Cloth cap makes way for bowler hat

Rugby League
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The Independent Online
The game did its best to shake off what remains of its cloth cap image by donning the bowler hat of the City establishment at the launch of the second year of Super League.

The launch at the Sports Cafe in London featured an announcement that Sheffield Eagles are to become the first club to be floated on the stock market and that the name Saatchi - more often associated with Conservative Party election campaigns - will in future be linked with the promotion of the code.

The Eagles are to take wing upon the Alternative Investments Market, the Stock Exchange's new public market for small, young and growing companies.

The man behind the plan is the electronics entrepreneur Paul Thompson, who performed a similar operation on behalf of West Bromwich Albion last year and also put himself forward as the potential backer of a Super League club in South Wales.

"This flotation will enable the Eagles to strengthen themselves across the board, not just the playing side but the club as a whole," Terry Sharman, the Sheffield chairman, said.

"It's an opportunity for supporters to buy shares, but we expect the majority of interest will come from business buyers.

"We have a good financial story to tell and I think that investors will be interested."

Meanwhile Super League has appointed M & C Saatchi as advisers to its marketing arm, Rugby League Europe.

Colin Myler, the chief executive of RLE, said: "We have the best sport in the world and now we have the best advertising agency to help to market it.

"We still get criticism and sniping about flat caps and meat pies. We still need to market our game more aggressively."

As the Rugby League and the Saatchis will admit, however, the quality of the product is what will make that marketing possible.

The launch yesterday also addressed itself to the question of quantity, inserting an extra round into the end of season play-offs for the benefit of the bottom four clubs in Super League. Instead of the previous top- eight play-off, the bottom eight will now play off for the right to meet the top four in the quarter-finals.

"It is going to make it a very long season, but we firmly believe it is going to be a thrilling one," Maurice Lindsay, the Rugby League's chief executive, said.

"This time last year we were still embroiled in all sorts of arguments about the coming of Super League. Now everyone just wants to get on with it."

The betting for the new season, which starts a week on Friday, shows St Helens as the 6-5 favourites to retain the Super League championship.

Deposed Wigan, who are due to make an announcement about their ground tomorrow, are second favourites at 7-4, with Castleford and the pre-flotation Sheffield Eagles rank outsiders at 200-1.

Those two unfancied clubs could do business later this week, with the Eagles tipped to sign Castleford's Great Britain tour half-back, Tony Smith, who is on the transfer list at pounds 150,000.