The best news about the new Super League season, which kicks off this Friday, is that it will do so with its full quota of clubs. At more than one stage that looked highly unlikely. Not only was the future of the Bradford Bulls in doubt until near the end of last season, but Salford have spent most of the winter on the brink of collapse.
The takeover of the heavily loss-making City Reds by the suave Dr Marwan Koukash is taking an age to finalise, but the imminent rescue is a triumph for international networking. When an investment package from Salford Council and the developers Peel Holdings fell through, putting the club's survival in doubt a few weeks before the start of the season, the Rugby League's chief executive, Nigel Wood, recalled the Kuwaiti millionaire he had happened to sit with on a flight to Dubai.
Dr Koukash had watched games at St Helens and expressed some interest in the sport – horseracing is his first enthusiasm – so Wood made the phone call. He put Koukash in touch with two associates, the former chairman of the New Zealand Rugby League Andrew Chalmers and Ed Farish, the former finance chief of Australia's NRL. Chalmers brought in the biggest name of all, Graham Lowe: the ex-New Zealand coach and the man who, more than a quarter of a century ago, kick-started Wigan's dominance of the English game.
Lowe, now 66 and with a history of heart trouble, has no ambition to put on a tracksuit again, so Phil Veivers's job as Salford coach is safe for now. "But I owe the game in this country a lot, so anything I can do to help, I will," Lowe says. Initially, that help is likely to take the form of recruiting some players from the southern hemisphere.
Salford are not out of the woods. Next Monday, just three days after their season-opener against Wigan, they face a winding-up petition. Assuming they come through that, it is unrealistic to expect Salford to be competitive. Just as well Koukash says he is in for the long haul.
The same reservations apply to Bradford, who must try to manage on a reduced allocation of Super League funds after going into administration last season. They were the pace-setters in the early years of Super League, but the competition now revolves around a Big Four, with the Bulls firmly on the outside.
Of that quartet, few would bet against the reigning champions, Leeds. Warrington, who have not made a single new signing this winter, have arguably the strongest squad, while Wigan, who led the league last time, look to have changed the guard extensively, with too many key players needing to be replaced. That leaves St Helens, under a new coach in Nathan Brown, who after a wildly variable tenure at Huddersfield needs to show he can get a consistent season out of a team.
From outside the Big Four, Hull, with the big signings of Gareth Ellis, back from Australia, and Daniel Holdsworth from Salford, look the likeliest candidates to break in.
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