Forty-20 Column: The Morning After

We’ve eaten half our rugby league Easter egg and discovered that the filling inside was pretty rich too…

Whether we should gorge ourselves on the other half so soon afterwards is the perennial debate about the period. Can you have too much of a good thing – is it better to savour and feel pleasantly full or run the risk of making ourselves sick – and that’s just the fans never mind the players.

Of course the protagonists will say that they love to play, it’s all part of the mental and physical challenge; a genuine test in the toughest of sports. It just sounds a little hollow when at the same time we are, rightly, looking at concussion rules and other duties of care and welfare.

This is an era where, even at lower Championship level, the preparation demands are incredibly intense and the collisions more extreme than ever before and derby matches, the preserve of this time of the year, ratchet that up. Ask those with an addiction for playing if they want to feed it and they will say yes; it doesn’t mean it’s in their best health interests, especially long term.

And there are two other issues, one of promoting the sport to best advantage and the other of what constitutes value for fans hard-earned money.

Good Friday – especially the wonderful Wigan-Saints throwback derby that reeked heroism had centre stage. There was a sell out, no Premiership football to hog the headlines, immense widespread admiration for the uncompromising fare; drama to the last for fans of both clubs, league neutrals and the otherwise uncommitted.

And yet before we had even time to take it in, squads were being announced for Monday’s games and previews rather than eulogies being written. We were more interested by the injuries caused than reflective analysis – Wigan’s season back on track, Saints losing a couple more players in a second successive, narrow but immensely admirable defeat, Louie not swearing on live tv.

All the best sporting storylines were contained in that 80 minutes and with Anthony Gelling’s charming ‘spirit of Easter’ award for riding home from the game on a newly purchased cash-converters bike and gate crashing a fan’s housewarming party – a wonderful follow up.

But we missed out on most of it because it’s onto the next mouthful which, because of such commitment will be a watered down version, as will – more so – next weekend’s. That’s tough on fans to ask them to pay full whack for an increasingly distilled version, whatever their passion.

It’s especially true in the Championship where there the full time / part time divide will be increasingly marked over such a weekend, undermining the number of minutes that matter.

What was great was seeing stadia locking fans out, not so much if you turned up late and was on the wrong side of the fence, but creating a must-see feel that comes with scarcity rather than overload.

We succeed when that happens at all grounds, the always-high figures for the holiday games at Wigan, Hull and commendably Cas giving a distorted overall picture.

So what has the first part of Easter told us on the field? The top three in SL are as generally predicted as are the bottom two. The bunching in the middle has seen Salford and Hull KR as this week’s movers with Warrington on a down curve in their worst run since 2009.

The full backs summed up the respective Hull clubs, the increasing confidence and swagger of Kieran Dixon compared to the seeming nervousness and unsurety of Jamie Shaul. Hull’s recruitment, as opposed to their stated desire to patiently promote locally from within looks exactly like most years since they made the Grand Final in 2006. The Humber rumble lacked a metaphorical punch, a bit like the election debate going on at the same time.

Crowds in the lower leagues were interesting, less at Batley than on Boxing Day for the friendly against Dewsbury, Featherstone fining their mean, superb figures for Newcastle, Rochdale and Coventry – who drew 721 for their winning debut.

Worries about the Cumbrian on-field disparity and the curse of dual reg, Whitehaven a victim of St Helens’ injury woes, a first away win for over a season for London who are up to fifth and Leeds win again without Kevin Sinfield in a week when they learned that will be the norm.

All talk at Widnes was of flare rather than flair and James Graham made the headlines for part-provoking the disgraceful post-match scenes in the Canterbury-Souths game that could see him face a five match ban – and they only play one round over Easter in the NRL, just saying.

As an Easter part one postscript, why not play England U16s v France as a curtain raiser to one of the derby clashes rather in an empty stadium away the day after. It devalues playing for your country.

And a PS to the Easter double up debate, on Monday morning, Wakefield chairman Michael Carter commenting on his side’s ongoing injury crisis tweeted, ‘For all those who think players don’t care, we have 1 today who’s playing with a tweaked medial, popped rib cartilage and nerve damage in neck.’

Is it a responsible sport that allows that to happen and can fans truly feel happy about being complicit in that for our so-called entertainment? We moved on a while ago from throwing gladiators to Lions.

The broadest smiles are in Coventry the morning after.

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