Fixture woe frustrates Championship coaches

This is the time that, traditionally, coaches like to have a moan about congested fixture schedules.

Keighley’s Barry Eaton, having seen his side pick up two impressive results ahead of their third game in six days against Halifax on Thursday night, has hit out at his Super League counterparts bemoaning their schedule.

Eaton said: “Just about every Super League coach seems to be criticising the Easter period but they want to look at the schedule we have.

“All they need to do is rest and recover when they’re not playing games but I’ve got players who are working all day before training or are working nights.

“I see no problem whatsoever with Super League teams playing Friday and Monday once during the season. It’s only once so they shouldn’t need to complain about it.”

In fact, Championship coaches such as Eaton would probably relish the regularity that the Super League fixture list brings.

Both the second and third tiers are operating with an odd number of teams this season, which means in each round, one team has a week off. If coupled with cup weeks for the Northern Rail Cup knock-out stages, which half the clubs aren’t involved in, and the Challenge Cup, some sides may be going weeks without a game at various points of the season, and this proves difficult for the part-time sides who struggle to keep up their revenue streams as it is.

Over the Easter weekend, Leigh faced the unenviable task of a trip to France to play Toulouse before backing up with a home game against Batley on Monday, made even more frustrating that local rivals Widnes had their bye week on the Good Friday round of fixtures. A Good Friday clash in front of 4000 fans would certainly have been a lot more convenient for Millward’s men, even if his Widnes counterpart Paul Cullen was privately relieved considering the Vikings’ recent injury troubles.

The thinking behind the Championship fixture scheduling remains unclear, although not everyone can be appeased whatever the outcome. Games need to be fit in around things such as travelling arrangements to and from Toulouse, as well as the re-seeding of pitches, courtesy of several clubs’ groundshare arrangements with professional football teams.

But perhaps common sense is lacking at times. It’s certainly left Whitehaven boss Ged Stokes scratching his head. Cynics may suggest he is looking for excuses after a poor start to the new season, but Stokes is on a run of four away matches in five league games, and with cup games in between, Haven have played just twice at the Recre in the past nine outings.

The Kiwi said: “I don’t think any other team in the competition has faced that many away games.

“Someone needs to take a close look at the fixture list and make sure this never happens to us again.”

It’s not just the players and coaches that are affected – fans soon grow out of patience with an irregular pattern of games. Blackpool faced a five week gap in their fixture list last season. If the same again was to happen now, following their impressive run of seven straight wins, they’d be in danger of losing the momentum that has seen them attract a few more through the gates at Fylde RUFC.

With crowd figures hardly thriving in the third tier, rugby league needs to help itself in getting people through the gates and keeping them there. If teams go months without home games, the casual fans will soon find something better to do with their time. It’s these fans that we need to be keeping hold of and converting in to loyal, die-hard fans ready to attract the next band of new fans.

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