Forty-20 Column: The Morning After

By common consent, however you measure it, Magic Weekend was a success. Whether it was an avowed one and, perhaps more importantly, how we capitalise on it, is another issue.

As a bespoke event – and as a sport we are realising the value of them – Newcastle and its surrounds knocked Manchester into a cocked Andy Capp.

The reasoning behind its inauguration was recaptured; a weekend away for the committed, in fertile territory for attracting newcomers, this the fourth venue in nine seasons.

The Toon embraced and throbbed. It was an occasion that recreated the feel of the old Wembley, mingling shirts of all hues enjoying good-natured banter in a genuine party atmosphere at a venue that is hospitality orientated.

The local economy bought in and got more back, a little like the Tour de France start in Yorkshire last year.

Sarah Stewart, chief executive of the NewcastleGateshead Initiative, was quoted as saying £4m will be pumped into the economy.

She said: “Hosting the Magic Weekend tournament here in Newcastle is a fantastic coup for the city. We know that approximately 80% of fans are travelling from out of region, tourism businesses across NewcastleGateshead and the wider North East region will see the benefit of the visiting Rugby League fans.”

Culturally, the similarities between the Geordies and rugby league fans make it a great fit; they too know their sport, love their beer and aren’t fussed about wearing a coat.

Maths never being a strong point, it just about added up attendance-wise too, a new cumulative record being set. 

The previous high at the Etihad last year, involving 14 sides and including Bradford averaged 4,650 per team. St James’ – with 12 sides and not on a Bank Holiday weekend – took that up to 5,650. 

If, as we were told, approximately 20 per cent of the attendance was from the North East region, that almost completely accounts for the increase.

Again, the celebratory weekend raised the question of, what do we want from it. Increased profile is one thing. 

Saturday’s games in a seemingly lop-sided fixture list were up against the FA Cup Final, Test Match in Leeds, Aviva Premiership Grand Final, and French Open tennis in the quest for headline act and, certainly on national radio driving up, Magic didn’t get a mention.

Sunday, the field was clearer and, somewhat ironically, all bar the strangely-scheduled final match more dramatic, newsworthy finishes.

The local paper, the Newcastle Chronicle could not have been more supportive in the build-up and over the course of the games, their enthusiasm matched by the stadium staff.

The players were all on-message too, they relished the big stage and performing at an iconic venue. 

For the vast majority who will miss out on Wembley and the Grand Final, playing in front of such a large crowd and fervent atmosphere is a season-high.

And yet, there is still a feeling that something is not quite right with the format. Talking to a handful of Geordies hardly represents a straw poll but it was interesting to get their idea of what they were watching if the idea is to use Magic as, in part, a vehicle to grow the sport.

On Saturday, especially, they had some buy in – and not just all-day beer in their temple of worship which, for some, was attraction enough.

The Widnes Bobby Robson shirts, which raised an astonishing £20,000, gave them a buy-in for the first game, the Vikings the most pro-active club to embrace a potentially new market.

The Hull derby they could relate to, although why FC chose to move away from strict black and white colours when on the Tyne is a mystery. For red and white Rovers, a Sunderland link might even have engaged more from the Wear and created an even greater rivalry element.

Leeds and Wigan are two of the clubs, by historic reputation, that the Geordies have heard of and a glance at the league table indicated it was likely to be the highest quality game.

But the locals were asking who we thought would win the trophy over the weekend, to some of them, it felt like going to a final without a cup; have a look at the menu but only choose a starter. 

So should Magic be an annual glimpse or something more in its own right? A 16-team stand-alone, cash-rich, winner-takes-all 9s might work. 

Among the potential advantages; the shorter on and off format works, fans could see their teams more than once on both days ensuring less grazing and more in the stadium for longer. There is the chance for invitation sides – Championship All Stars, a leading European nation, for example – to extend the interest; something different and all do-able as in Auckland.

Alternatively, and especially with relegation back, make the round part of rather than additional to the regular season.

Designate a home team for each game, alternate it each year, with free transport for their season ticket holders inconvenienced by moving the fixture, and those clubs compensated from a greater share of the overall gate.

Or, how about this? With an uneven number of fixtures in the eights, why not schedule Magic as the first round of those games. Yes, we might not know the final match ups until the week before but that, in some ways, would be part of the added attraction.

There is already a grid produced outlining which league position will play whom and there would be added frisson in the weeks leading up watching those spots fill and change. If so-an-so wins that would mean them facing…

Yes, it would mean four games per day but it would also involve four – and most likely the better supported – Championship clubs being involved. Fans might be more persuaded to stay on as other results would have more significance, the games would all have something more riding on them than at present.

Currently, we are creating the frame but not enough of the picture to go inside it.

And what of legacy? It was terrific that, with corporate included, around 3,000 fans attended Newcastle Thunder’s game against York as the Friday night hors d’oeuvre – and what a superb marketing ploy that they wore the names of Newcastle United legends on their shirts – but it’s hard to show the uncommitted top level fare at Magic and then expect them to snack back in League One.

There is talk of Thunder making their way into Super League but, at best, that will take five seasons. 

We need to be brave and learn the lessons from Bristol in the last World Cup where 8,000 mainly new converts were left malnourished afterwards.

Announce now that the 2016 Four Nations opener with England playing Scotland and Australia versus New Zealand on the undercard as a double-header, will be staged at St James’ Park. Bearing in mind the ground is hosting rugby union World Cup games this year and all virtual sell-outs, surely we have the confidence in our product – and an extra year to promote the games – to do likewise.

The biggest tangible return this weekend was the engagement of clubs and kids from the North East, with the tangerine Cramlington army particularly prominent. The grassroots spin offs – aided by the Widnes and Leeds foundations in particular – are equally as important although less high profile.

On the field, Salford lost their rag-tag way before Darrell Griffin was, harshly, shown red. His tackle was on a par with Patrick Ah Van’s sending off in week one but we haven’t seen similar incidents punished likewise since. Kevin Brown relished in the extra space available.

Hull’s big-name players clearly enjoyed playing on the big stage against a side that are the greatest enigma in the division, Rovers seemingly able to score picture tries at will but unable to prevent them, making them attractive and frustrating in equal measure.

Wigan dominated Leeds tactically, playing the game they wanted but what a joy to see young Brits George Williams, Joe Burgess and Zak Hardaker dominating proceedings, along with the gent Matt Bowen.

Huddersfield and Catalan produced the worst start and best finish, Danny Brough absolutely outstanding throughout, especially in defence and Paul Anderson playing the curmudgeon magnificently, while Todd Carney’s even ill-luck seemed to run out with another injury.

Saints second half desperation was reminiscent of the Grand Final, Warrington still striving for a complete 80 minute performance.

Perhaps in tribute to Sir Bobby, Cas went for wingers, the Toon army not having seen the likes of Denny Solomona and Ashley Gibson since the days of Jermaine Jenas and Kieron Dyer. 

Wakefield’s solace was announcing the capture of Brian Smith as their next coach, thanks to the amazing largesse of previous incumbent James Webster. Hopefully he can bring the best out of namesake Tim as that seems the Wildcats’ only route to short term salvation.

If we are serious about our image too, not a great look that the fan-zone face painting extended to the players on day two, along with multi-coloured shirts, while Catalan won the fancy dress competition with their Napoleons. 

The crowd may have been bigger for Origin 1 and the tv ratings high, but has the two-state ‘war’ lost its lustre? Queensland’s one-point grind out certainly illustrated how the game has changed.

Gone is the mate-against-mate biff that was its USP, the more sanitized version now becoming increasingly predictable, packs don’t even go down in scrums anymore. 

It was a game we have seen so many times before. You still can’t beat the Aussie tv build up and the crowd, contrary to popular myth about Aussie fans, made plenty of noise but there was a touch of the Emperor’s new clothes about the action, the Josh’s Dugan and Morris apart.

Sadly, the Championship and League 1 here this weekend looked as though it was played in a vacuum. 

 

The broadest smiles are in Wigan the morning after.

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