Bulls give impetus to Super League kick-off

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The Independent Online

Despite what the various almanacs might have to say on the subject of lighting-up time, the darkest day since the end of the last Super League season came in late November.

Great Britain had just lost the Ashes series 3-0, England had won the Rugby Union World Cup the same day and there was no guarantee that there was going to be a new television contract to sustain the game financially.

That night, peering through the gloom, rugby league really did seem to be in the mire, but, as the new Super League season kicks off this weekend, the outlook is much brighter than might have been predicted three months ago.

Okay, it would be better all round to be starting the season in the warm glow of beating Australia - which Great Britain could and should have done - but national self-esteem got a timely boost when Bradford beat Penrith in the World Club Challenge last Friday.

It was a result and a performance which showed that the best of British - admittedly fleshed out with New Zealanders and the odd Australian - can still be world-class when there is an optimum use of resources. It also demonstrated, beyond any lingering doubt, that the Bulls' Brian Noble should be the next Great Britain coach.

Noble was David Waite's assistant that day in November when the contrast between England's World Cup win and Great Britain's failure looked so stark. There were plenty that night eager to predict that the balance of power between the two codes, even in the north of England, had swung irrevocably.

There has, in reality, been little or no negative impact. Rugby league clubs at all levels have experienced a heightened interest in rugby in general and any anticipated drift of players at the top end of the game has failed to happen.

The only notable movement across the old divide, in fact, has been in the opposite direction, with St Helens signing the Samoans, Maurie Fa'asavulu and Dom Feaunati. There are also plenty around the Leeds-Bradford corridor anticipating the return of Iestyn Harris at some stage this year.

After a good deal of brinksmanship on both sides, the new Sky TV contract has been signed. It represents a modest increase on the previous deal - a good result in itself in the current climate - and gives the game the essential financial security over the next five years that it could not get from anywhere else.

Of course, in terms of entertainment, the game is worth more - but it is a fact of life that you do not always get what you deserve and must manage with the best you can get. The game has the means which it should be able to live within.

The fly in that ointment is that there is no consensus about where the salary cap fits into this picture. The limit on how much clubs can spend on players is in place to protect them from themselves and to try to equalise the competition.

A clear majority would like it to come down from its current maximum of £1.8 million and they have some strong arguments on their side. There is already a competition within a competition and a salary cap ceiling which only a handful of clubs can reach is as much use as an equalising device as no cap at all.

The trouble is that Bradford, Wigan and possibly St Helens will fight like cornered tigers to prevent any further tightening. The first two have already said that they would go to court and potentially bring the whole salary cap structure crashing down.

To the rest, that looks unimaginably selfish, but Bradford's reaction to winning the World Club Challenge was that it was a monument to their single-minded pursuit of excellence. It is a pursuit from which they will not easily be diverted.

The Bulls clearly start the Super League season as the team to beat. They were far and away the best-equipped side last year, but the loss of James Lowes, Mike Forshaw and Daniel Gartner from the pack might tell on them as the season wears on.

In that case, the opportunity could be there for the other members of the unofficial big four. There are Saints, with their Samoan wild-cards and more options in the front row, and Wigan, with their wonderful young players again having to fill in for their injured senior team-mates.

Most of all, though, Leeds, blighted in the recent past by their inability to beat Bradford, have a gifted crop of youngsters who need only that little extra polish to take them all the way.

That is the rationale behind replacing Daryl Powell with the hard-nosed Tony Smith. He believes that he has the right blend of potential and experience to work with and he could be right.

Hull, with an easier draw - Super League still clings to its unwieldy system of extra games to complete a 28-game programme - should put pressure on the big four, although the news of the latest injury to Jason Smith shows that some things never change.

London and Warrington battled their way into the play-offs last time, but the Broncos, in particular, look to have their work cut out this time. They are now commendably home-grown, but perhaps a little short on proven Super League quality.

Warrington's home games at their new Halliwell Jones Stadium should be among the events of the year, but it will be an achievement to match last year's sixth place.

If there is to be a big improvement, it could be from the perennial strugglers of Wakefield. They have some improving English players, plus some well-chosen imports who look set to make an impact. David Solomona, in particular, has "Born to play in England" stamped right through him.

Trinity could do rather better than their neighbours, Castleford, who have so often chased the big guns. Huddersfield have their work cut out to sustain last season's progress without Smith and Widnes, from whom there has been little but bad news over the close-season, could be grateful for the presence of Salford.

The newly-promoted club will have great difficulty in re-establishing themselves in Super League. Ridiculously early it might be, but their first game back, against Widnes on Sunday, looks suspiciously like a four-pointer.