So Super League gets underway this weekend with the now four-year old Magic Weekend gimmick.
Love it or loathe it, it seems to generate plenty of debate and as starting weekends go, you can’t go wrong with seven live televised rugby league games to kick-off the season.
The weekend makes a return to Cardiff this year after a two year flirtation with Murrayfield in Scotland, and it has been brought forward from its traditional May bank holiday slot to opening up the season.
Without doubt, opening the season gives it much more exposure and as usual, the RFL have indicated that they are not scared of making a bold move and trying new things out, and for this they should be applauded.
However, as a concept, there are still lots of question marks beside it. Although the crowds have generally been reported to have been a success, in truth the aggregate crowds of the weekend paper over the cracks of what is generally a half empty stadium for each match, as many fans choose to watch just their own team and maybe odd parts of another game, before exploring the local area – or more than likely, finding the best boozer near to the ground.
One Super League head coach said to me at the season launch that they don’t see what’s wrong with playing 13 at home and 13 away, and just leave it at that. And they have a point. While one game is hardly going to shape a season, come September, two points in Cardiff could mean the difference between a play-off place and not making the cut. While the coach I spoke to has a favourable draw, you only have to look at Bradford and Salford, two reasonable challengers for a top eight place, who have contrasting dates. The Bulls face local rivals Leeds, while Salford face a Crusaders side under a new coach, and following a turbulent close season. Is it fair on the Bulls that their 27th game is as tough as Leeds, while Salford have the arguably easier tie against Crusaders? – which, by the way, is meant in no way to be offensive towards the Welsh side, who were brilliant last season.
Fans of the Championships have been denied the Magic Weekend experience this year too, with a full programme of Northern Rail Cup games running over the weekend. In previous seasons, the Championship games have been played on the Friday or Monday, to allow fans to either attend the event, or of course take advantage of the excellent coverage offered by SKY Sports, particularly as all seven games this year are to be broadcast in 3D.
Holding the event on the opening weekend may well get more fans travelling, desperate for some live rugby league action following a few months without it (friendlies aside). But for this event to be a success, it surely needs to be selling out. You only have to look at rugby union, who regularly take games to Wembley with Saracens, and enjoy bumper crowds – and that’s just for one regular match.
Another thing I found interesting, was the news that Super League enjoyed a higher average attendance than its rugby union equivalent last season, which begs the question why is their international game so much more popular than ours? It will be interesting to see whether coverage of our game in the national press throughout the domestic season will compliment this statistic too.
So, for this weekend, we all travel to Cardiff more than in hope than expectation. Hope that a decent crowd shows up, that the games prove to be exciting and that there are more points than penalties (it is whistle-happy time of year of course).