Newlove and money

Dave Hadfield explains how a record move heralds next year's Super League
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THE most expensive player in rugby league makes his debut for St Helens today, thanks to a deal which, although it comes four months before the start of Super League, is effectively the first of that new era. Paul Newlove became a Saint last Wednesday in a move calculated by his jubilant new club to be worth pounds 500,000.

His old employers at Bradford were equally cheerful, reasoning that their benefits add up to half a new team as they gear up for the start of summer rugby. Everybody - with the possible exception of the three St Helens players traded across the Pennines in part-exchange - was happy.

All transfers are a gamble and the new money in the game has raised the stakes. But, starting with today's home fixture against Workington, Saints expect this one to pay off handsomely. Anything over a 6,000 crowd for one of the less attractive games of the season will be down to Newlove. If that sounds a slow way of recouping an investment, it is worth remembering that another centre, the legendary Mal Meninga, brought in enough extra revenue to cover his whole season with the club after just half a dozen home games 11 years ago.

That is the impact a player of genuine star quality can have on a town such as St Helens, hungry for success and sick of the long shadow of Wigan. "We have made our statement. The Super League demands star players and it is up to our public to respond," said David Howes, one of the game's new breed of chief executives.

Eric Ashton, the Saints chairman and once a great centre himself, believes the Newlove signing will acquire the same practical and symbolic significance as Wigan's capture of Ellery Hanley - also from Bradford, also for a world record fee - a decade ago.

That remains to be seen. Meninga and Hanley are massive figures in the history of the game and Newlove has some way to go to rank alongside. But his is a talent of a magnitude which, as Howes says, rarely becomes available. With only the possible exception of Brisbane's Steve Renouf, he is the best attacking centre in the world.

Inevitably, his disenchantment at Bradford - which had a financial dimension apart from his devotion to their discarded coach, Peter Fox - galvanised all the clubs who hope to be in the upper reaches of the Super League. Saints are accustomed to losing these bidding contests, but they started with an advantage in this one.

"It was before my time, but the club made a very favourable impression when they were chasing him a couple of years ago," Howes said. Newlove has also struck up a firm friendship on international trips with that most sociable of players, the Saints' captain, Bobbie Goulding.

The atmosphere at Knowsley Road that Goulding described in detail appealed to him more than what he knew of the Wigan changing room. Newlove is not a player of unbridled ambition, feeling comfortable at a club is more important.

The other serious contenders were Leeds, who reluctantly agreed by last weekend that they would throw in three players Bradford wanted. But the Bulls always preferred that Newlove should not move to their neighbours and Saints agreed to the part-exchange they wanted and offered more money.

On the face of it, a deal of this scale must be fuelled by Super League money as well as Super League ambition, but Saints insist they have not dipped into their Murdoch cash, although it is there as insurance against getting themselves in too deep.

Newlove will be well paid at St Helens, but only as well as the best- paid players already there. "You have to do the deal in a way that doesn't upset everyone else," Howes said. "The key thing is that he should be happy at the club."

Saints are prepared to be relaxed about the question of where Newlove lives. They have always preferred their players to live in or near the town, but the new man - a renowned home-bird - is not being asked to uproot from Knottingley, near Pontefract. "You don't want to change the circumstances that made him the player he is," Howes said. "Besides, he can be here within an hour."

Not only the world's best centre but also a serious rival to Damon Hill it seems. If he is as fast on the field this afternoon, Saints will start to see a return on their bold outlay.