Leeds have hailed their devastating double capture of former Man of Steel Brodie Croft and England hooker Andy Ackers as their biggest move since the 90s.
The Salford pair make the switch to Headingley as the Rhinos follow through with their biggest investment in playing staff for decades.
It is a move that has disheartened Red Devils’ fans, team-mates and staff, but given fallen giants Leeds renewed hope of reigniting the glory days that saw them dominate the domestic game.
“It is our biggest investment in one go since we signed Iestyn Harris in 1997 when Iestyn came and made a significant difference to our squad,” declared the Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington, who has had fork out in the region of £300,000 to free the pair from their Salford contracts. The pairs wages, marque man Croft especially, will run into seven figures over the course of their three-year deals.
Ironically it was Harris, now a player agent, who helped broker the deal.
Leeds at times looked a splintered, disorganised mess of a team this year, failing to make the playoffs after going all the way to the Betfred Super League Grand Final last year - boss Rohan Smith’s first in charge.
Aside from a late burst through the playoffs to beat Castleford in Rob Burrow and Danny McGuire’s farewell Grand Final of 2017, the Rhinos have really been in gradual decline for eight years. Iconic Leaders Kevin Sinfield, Jamie Peacock and Kylie Leuluai were never replaced after the 2015 treble, while Burrow and McGuire are irreplaceable.
That said, poor recruitment and retention has finally hit home, and forced Hetherington to dig deeper than he has had to for a quarter of a century.
But where does this leave Salford, an over-achieving cash-tight family club so shrewdly coached by one of the best in Paul Rowley?
The Red Devils have become routine playoff contenders despite their financial difficulties and were left with nowhere to go in accepting this double deal to balance the books. Croft was on a huge long-term deal with an NRL release clause, yet the club say they hoped to resist offers this winter. Ackers was asked to stay, but was keen to go to Leeds too.
England forward Tyler Dupree had already been sold to champions Wigan in mid-season, with star full-back Ryan Brierley constantly linked with a move away. Indeed I understand Brierley’s agent also spoke with Leeds before the transfer window closed this season.
I’m told Rowley has been left distraught at the loss of two of his most important players and allies, with much of the funds now likely to be used to plug holes rather than bring in replacements. The heartbeat of the Red Devils’ recent success has been their spine of Brierley, Croft, Sneyd and Ackers. Half of that has now gone.
Disheartened but not destroyed though, this Salford team will come again. The players, fans and staff are collectively a resilient bunch and there will be no bad blood imparted at the departing pair.
As for Leeds, the new recruits join full-back Lachie Miller, half-back Matt Frawley, Catalans prop Goudemand and Sydney Roosters centre Paul Momirovski in their playing staff overhaul. But it has not all been good news, with many fans believing this off-season was effectively last-chance saloon to get the current project back on track under Smith.
Rising star Sam Walters looks equipped to dominate the British game for years, and he has been allowed to slip away and join rivals Wigan. That felt inexcusable. Through injuries and sales - the loan of Blake Austin to Castleford being the most baffling - Leeds finished the year with a whimper, without a recognised starter throughout their own spine, something again that should never happen.
There was even embarrassment to accompany this blockbuster double signing, with the club’s slick announcement video somehow leaking online the night before the big reveal.
But this gives Leeds fans hope and buys the regime some time. Croft is a superstar with an international-class ally in Ackers. Their understanding developed at Salford will allow them to hit the Headingley ground running.
Salford will be bruised but will adapt, and as long as they have Rowley, they too have hope.