AT the zenith of their halcyon days, James Lowes could surely never imagine eventually being back at Bradford Bulls needing to navigate their way through fixtures with Dewsbury Rams, Whitehaven and Hunslet Hawks.
When he retired in 2003, the combative hooker left Bradford as Super League champions and Challenge Cup holders having, the previous year, led them to their first World Club Challenge with a man-of-the-match performance against Australian premiers Newcastle Knights.
They would add a second global title a few months after he hung up his boots and a third arrived in 2006 with the mighty Bulls having reached five consecutive Grand Finals.
However, the present day is so different after a well-documented succession of financial disasters at Odsal ultimately led to relegation this year.
In reality, Lowes arrived too late to save them from that fate when he replaced Francis Cummins at the end of June but he did make astute adjustments to their playing style which led to a late flourish of four wins from their last six fixtures. Now, having put together his own squad for life in the Championship – 10 departures and 15 new arrivals – he is ready to set out on the long road to returning the famous club to its former glory.
With the licensing process for Super League now abandoned, promotion – or the prospect of it – will return in 2015.
Granted, it is in a convoluted manner with the new Super 8s, whereby Super League’s bottom four after 23 rounds take on the Championship’s top four in a new division to decide four elite places for 2016.
It is unfamiliar ground but Lowes told The Yorkshire Post: “I’m looking forward to the year as always.
“Every season offers a fresh challenge regardless of who you are or where you are.
“As for whether we can go straight back up, with all the pitfalls the RFL have put in place it is obviously a tough ask given the way the salary cap is organised, to getting fewer home games when it comes to that play-off time.
“I don’t know why they’ve stacked all the odds against the Championship teams but we’ll see. It’s an interesting case with the restructure. Will it benefit the top league or England national side? I doubt it very much.”
Lowes insists it is not imperative Bradford, resuscitated since new owner Marc Green rescued them from administration in March, must return at the first attempt. He added: “We have a plan. We’ve set goals but there’s no great pressure on me to get Bradford up this season.
“We’ll do our best and if it’s not good enough I’m sure someone will step in instead.
“But there’s no pressure on me to get it done immediately.”
After all the doom, gloom and uncertainty of recent years when Bradford slid amid the chaos of takeovers, administrations, points deductions and unpaid wages, Lowes says the community has reacted well to the realisation they will be playing in the lower echelons next year, as bizarre as it seems.
“They have come to realise Marc Green is chairman and (managing director) Steve Ferres is there, too, and are both all for this club,” he continued, after understandable initial concerns.
“They want to make it a success and the fans will get behind that.
“The boys having a bit of a run at the back end of last season gave everyone a bit of a lift, too, and there is a bit of a buzz around the place now. We’ve had some good functions, got good feedback and fans have jumped on board. I think they are looking forward to it just as much as we are.”
Bradford’s first game in the Championship is at Grand Final winners Leigh Centurions on February 15, a side who are sure to be one of their main rivals.
Bulls are currently stepping up their pre-season preparations and Lowes admits: “It’s a tough part of the season and a little bit over-rated in my eyes but it has to be done.
“Everyone wants to play now but, even with friendlies coming up, I don’t think you ever start a season at 100 per cent.
“You fine-tune as you go on. Hopefully, your best performances come in the play-offs. That’s when you need to peak.
“Everybody looks good at training and are ripping in but it’s all about playing so we’ll see then.”
Lowes appointed ex-Halifax coach and former Great Britain team-mate Karl Harrison as his assistant in September and he has made an instant impact on the squad which includes notable new signings such as St Helens forward Paul Clough and France centre Jean-Philipe Baile.
“Karl’s good, I’ve known him a lot of years and he brings a lot of experience to the squad,” he said, ex-Hull FC, Wigan Warriors and New Zealand prop Epalahame Lauaki being the final acquisition just before Christmas.
“And he’s also probably someone who is slightly more grumpier than me – but only just.
“We’re pleased with the squad we’ve put together. We’ve lost (due to injury) Mark Offerdahl which is a shame as I was looking forward to getting him across and working with him.
“Unfortunately, it didn’t happen but it meant we had one spot available and Lauaki came up.
“I spoke to him, had a good chat and he clearly wants to have another crack in British rugby.
“He’s explosive and he’ll bring some experience as well.”