Having enjoyed our chocolate eggs and hot cross buns, rugby league fans can settle down to enjoy what has become another of our Easter traditions: the complaints from coaches about having to play two games over the weekend. This year Justin Morgan’s voice has been heard the loudest after Hull Kingston Rovers’ Bank Holiday Monday defeat to Huddersfield Giants.
Morgan’s anger was brought on not only by defeat, but also by injuries to his players. Rhys Lovegrove dislocated his shoulder, while Nick Fozzard suffered a torn bicep. Morgan’s argument is that these injuries are brought on by the overcrowded Easter fixture list, and are wholly avoidable. This is a perfectly valid argument, although Morgan’s remarks themselves are fairly nonsensical. “We are in the modern age of professional rugby league. We need to treat it that way,” he opined. “We’re not amateurs; we don’t need to play two games in a weekend anymore.”
We are told constantly that today’s players are much fitter than those of yesteryear, which is probably true. The question should be asked then why they were able to play so many more games while holding down full-time jobs. We are also told that professional players are fitter than amatuer or semi-professional players, which is certainly true. It seems strange then that Morgan’s argument against the two games is that this is modern rugby league and the players are not amatuers. Those, surely, are two reasons why the players should be able to play the two games rather than vice-versa.
Morgan was clearly in an angry state of mind however, at least juding by his condemnation of referee Ben Thaler, and behind the mangled logic lies a serious point. If these injuries were caused by fixture congestion, then something should be done to sort the problem. The most likely solution – in fact, the only real solution – is to play just one game over the Easter weeked.
Many coaches have made this argument over the years, and now the players are beginning to join the debate. In his column Adrian Morley wrote that, “Playing two Super League games over the Easter holiday weekend is just plain crazy and it’s got to stop”, adding that the situation would “demean our game”. Paul Wellens has also said he would rather play fewer games over Easter. Jamie Peacock recently said that, “The season is too long and players are going to miss the start of the season because they are still recovering from injuries and operations from the last year”.
This is where we get to the crux of the problem. The traditional Easter debate is just part of a wider debate over whether there are too many games played in a season. A top player can expect to play in 27 league games, five cup games and two or three play-off games including the Grand Final, a total of around 35 games. Top players feel that too much is asked of them, particularly when they then have to play in Test matches against NRL players who have played fewer games over the course of the season.
The difficulty is where games could be cut from. In the past when there were six “extra” Super League fixtures the argument was simply to get rid of them. Now, with the exception of the Magic Weekend, the clubs play each other home and away, so fixtures could not be eliminated without leaving the league looking unbalanced. The only apparent alternatives are to eliminate either the play-offs and Grand Final or the Challenge Cup, but given how big those events are it would be a sad day when they were wiped off the calendar. Another difficulty is the losses that clubs would undergo due to any culling of fixtures.
Perhaps there is no satisfactory solution to the problem. Even the simple step of playing only one game over Easter would lead to the season beginning a week earlier, something that in itself is becoming a problem. Eventually though something might have to be done to appease those coaches and players who feel their workload is too great.
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