Time for change: Busy Easter schedule must go

Much talk in rugby league over the last couple of weeks has centred on the demands of the busy Easter schedule, where clubs play two games in four days, and then back it up five days later with another game.

As the game becomes ever more physically demanding, with bigger, faster players than ever, the toll such a crowded fixture schedule takes seems to grow every year.

Even the players who do not sustain injury end up stale and fatigued, their mental resources diminished and depleted.

The psychological demands of playing two games within four days, and then another within a week should not be underestimated either.

Those harsh observers who scream that they wish they only had to work for two 80 minute shifts over Easter are merely showing their utter ignorance of professional sport.

For starters, such an opinion shows no understanding of the pressure, anxiety and outright nerves that are associated with playing the most physically testing of sports in front of thousands of people in a crowd.

Adrenaline and tension exert a physical as well as mental toll on players, that sometimes takes as long to recover from as the physical elements of the game.

As many clubs also play a derby as their first fixture of Easter, the mental fatigue is exacerbated.

What Easter leaves us with is a set of fatiugued, stale players who cannot perform to their best, no matter how much they would like to do so.

We end up with poor fare as games, and the effects can go a long way to spoiling an entire season for some clubs.

Can Hull KR actually recover enough from their long injury list to mount any kind of serious challenge for the top eight now? It looks unlikely, and Easter only worsened their problems.

Playing 17-year-olds straight out the academy for a trip to Wigan is not good, whatever anyone says. It was testament to some fine team spirit that the Rovers were not hammered out of site at the DW Stadium. The pressure to perform on teenagers is immense, look at the tale of Jordan rankin and the journey he went through.

St Helens, Warrington, Castleford, Wigan, Leeds are just some of the more prominent teams who are carrying long injury lists, but every club is affected in some way.

As for people who say why not just have bigger squads, where do the players come from? And do they do that under the current salary cao?

Youth development at many clubs has been sadly lacking for years, and pushing players who are not ready for Super League to limits that they cannot reach is self-destructive and silly.

Cunningham called for a more Australian approach to Easter, with games staggered for television over the four days of the whole Easter holiday. Sky could probably cover every game, meaning that fans of every team would see their club on telly over the holiday.

The season would also have an even number of fixtures again, without the added fixture of the Magic Weekend, which also seems to penalise some clubs more than others.

There is also the view that such a testing schedule is hampering Super League’s ability to match the NRL, expressed forcefully by Saints coach Cunningham last week.

He said: “People say to me, ‘Why are you not getting close to Australia?’

“Then I come back and say, ‘Well, I played 500 games in my career.’

“Someone of the similar stature in Australia as I was as a player would play [much more], if they play 300 in Australia, then you’re celebrated as one of the legends of the game.

“Michael Ennis is a great hooker in Australia – he’s just celebrated his 250th game, and he’s been around forever and a day.

“My captain has just celebrated his 400th game, and they’re a very similar age.

“That’s the difference – 150 games more.”

More fixtures means less intensity, and players being less accustomed to the constant pressure of big games.

So things need to change. The powers that be should make Easter a one-round weekend, with games staggered over the four days for television.

Each game should be promoted as a big occasion in its own right, with maybe a heritage round being introduced, where clubs can celebrate their history. This might possibly fit well with the traditional derbies played at this time of year.

One less fixture also helps the Magic Weekend fit better into the competition, having a less distorting effect on the season.

This should reward us with better games which retain a big sense of holiday occasion. It should also mean that the games the following week are much better, and better reflect the quality of club’s first-choice squads.

The RFL are investigating the issue, and awaiting the details of an injury audit. Let’s hope that they use the findings to make a decision which all of us, coaches, players and fans, can back.

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