Eye On Rugby League by Tony Williams
Just like chocolate eggs, hot cross buns, bunnies and, for some strange reason, the mince pies that didn't shift over Christmas, Easter annually brings us the debate over whether rugby league players should have to play two games over the Easter weekend. This season it has been Karl Harrison and Daniel Anderson whose voices have been the loudest in decrying what has become known as the ‘Easter programme'.
And it's true that the sheer volume of fixtures at this time of year has a negative impact on the players. This is a tough, uncompromising sport that puts greater physical strain on its participants than sports such as soccer, cricket and even rugby union. You have to wonder about the adverse affect that playing both games has on our players.
This can be seen, in recent seasons, with St Helens' controversies on Easter Monday. Three years ago Ian Millward fielded a weakened team against Bradford Bulls on the Monday, following his side's tough derby match with Wigan Warriors on Good Friday. He was then accused of resting his players for the Challenge Cup game the week after. The same situation occurred two years later and resulted in the Sean Long and Martin Gleeson betting scandal.
Millward insisted that his players were genuinely injured, and there's little to suggest that he is lying. Back to back games against Wigan and Bradford would take a lot out of any team. This year the RFL decided against saints having to play Bradford on the Monday, but with a trip to Catalonia instead they must not have felt too relieved.
What the debate boils down to, again, is whether or not the season is too long. And, would it really be so difficult for the fixture planners to dropt hose silly six extra fixtures in the engage Super League? This would allow more time for Great Britain's games to be allocated, and stop the ridiculous situation where they must play four straight games against Australia and New Zealand due to time constraints.
But, it has to be said, that the ‘Easter programme' has been around for years, and there also used to be a ‘Christmas programme'. The season used to be longer, with more league fixtures and more cup competitions, while the players also held down full time jobs. Aren't today's players supposed to be fitter than there counterparts of yesteryear?
Regardless of all that, if our players feel that they are playing for too long we have to respect what they think and shorten the season. But, of course, the club chairmen would never allow this – no matter what their players and coaches said. It all comes down to money, and the longer season, as well as the Easter fixtures, all brings much-needed revenue for the clubs.
It's one of those situations where an acceptable solution does not seem to exist. There are a lot of those in rugby league aren't there?
Don't judge me too harshly, but I'm also a soccer fan. On Saturday I went to watch the once-famous Nottingham Forest take on Tranmere Rovers in Football League One. Forest were once a soccer force, league winners on several occasions and twice European Cup winners.
But Forest have made history of a different kind this season, becoming the first champions of England to drop to the third tier of English soccer. On this occasion they struggled to beat an average Tranmere side and promotion looks beyond their reach. As the Rovers fans succinctly summed up, "you're not famous any more".
It occurred to me that I may have witnessed the future of Wigan Warriors, at one time the most prestigious club in rugby league. In last week's column I suggested that the dismissal of Ian Millward may allow them to improve their form over Easter – it didn't.
In my opinion Wigan didn't look that bad in their Good Friday clash with St Helens, but they were awful in their Easter Monday game at home to Harlequins. The 30-18 defeat certainly set the relegation alarm bells ringing at the JJB Stadium, and the warriors are now four points adrift at the bottom of the engage Super League.
Caretaker coach Stuart Wilkinson said that the Warriors' new coach must be appointed as soon as possible, and I have to agree. Time is now precious for a club looking to fight back from the position that Wigan now find themselves in, and they need a man who can turn things around, whether it's Brian Noble or someone else.
Otherwise, Wigan may tread the path that has already been tread by Nottingham Forest.
National Leagues Deserve Better
The amount of coverage given to the LHF Healthplan National Leagues is, in my opinion, a disgrace. The websites that I look to for rugby league news are apt to ignore the thriving competition beneath the engage Super League.
Possibly the biggest culprit are Sky Sports. Two seasons ago ‘Boots ‘n' All' used to show results and tables from the National Leagues, as well as highlights from the best game of the weekend. This disappeared in 2005 for some inexplicable reason.
To wander off the point slightly, it often appears as though Sky Sports attempt to run down anything that isn't Super League. In successive weeks they had debates to show that promotion and the Challenge Cup should be scrapped. They also tend to refer to the "sport of Super League".
Maybe it will take the relegation of a club of Wigan's stature to bring some much needed publicity to our National Leagues.
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