One week on from Manchester City securing their second English Premier League title, the Etihad Stadium opens its turnstiles to thousands of Rugby League fans for the third consecutive year, as the Magic Weekend rolls into town. Whilst no doubt hoping capacity crowds are treated to a weekend of scintillating rugby, even the Rugby Football League would be surprised if anything causes the mass pitch invasion and amateur pyrotechnic display that erupted on the stroke of Sunday’s final whistle.
In contrast to the dismal conditions on Sunday, the RFL will hope that Manchester is once again basked in the glorious sunshine that has surprisingly lit up the previous two years’ action. However, as representatives from all 14 Super League sides were handing out ice creams in Manchester on Monday to promote the weekend, Manchester’s more traditional climate continued. Dismal conditions were not enough to prevent players donning aprons and hats, whilst getting amongst the grateful public and happily posing for photographs.
Ticket sales, despite the occasion being brought forward a week from the second May Bank Holiday weekend, appear in a healthy state. The RFL will hope their last big PR push this week will help attract any people toying with the idea of going and turn it into a record-breaking weekend. As a minimum, they must surpass the 62,042 aggregate attendance of last year before they begin to consider it a success.
The signs are good, though, as the upper tier of the East Stand is to be opened for the first day, which culminates in the Hull derby acting as the curtain-raiser to an enthralling clash between Leeds and Wigan. All hospitality packages for the Saturday are sold out and the RFL PR machine claim it is already guaranteed to be the best-attended opening day in a Magic Weekend history dating back to 2007.
As the Hull derby kicks off, so too does the FA Cup final at Wembley. For the first time in their history Hull City have reached the final, which has created much debate and prompted calls for the RFL to change the kick off time for the Super League clash, to give people the opportunity to watch both games. In the face of criticism the RFL has correctly rejected such notion and the game will go ahead, as planned. The Magic Weekend schedule was decided some time ago and it is simply not practical to change it with only a month or so notice. Doing so would show no regard for the implications it could cause for fans of other clubs, who have already made travel and accommodation plans and probably have no interest in the final.
However, the RFL did make a mistake when they scheduled the weekend on the same one as the FA Cup final. Magic Weekend is supposed to attract new fans to what is a struggling sport and unfortunately even an FA Cup, which has sadly lost its traditional standing in English football, will still completely overshadow the event in the national media. Attracting those prospective new fans will become that bit harder as their heads will be turned towards football yet again, which in a World Cup year, doesn’t require much doing. Indeed, the fact it is Hull City are in the FA Cup final which clashes with a Hull derby in the Super League is little more than a red herring.
On the pitch, London and Catalans start proceedings on the opening day with their traditional ‘derby’ fixture, in a game that should see the French emerge victorious. Next, an intriguing fixture between in-form Widnes and a Salford side although still yet to gel, not to be written off. Two years in Manchester and two calamitous Steve Ganson decisions have stolen the headlines and seen the ‘wrong team’ win the Hull derby. Hopefully this year the players will rightly reclaim the limelight and the officials will be forgotten about, as Hull look to avenge their nail-biting Easter defeat to their neighbours, Hull KR.
Saturday’s box office clash between reigning champions Wigan and current league leaders Leeds brings the day to a close, in a game which on paper should be a formality for the Yorkshire side. However Wigan, coping with injuries at various stages to key men such as Bowen, Charnley, O’Loughlin and McIlorum, continue to grind out results and their often youthful-looking squad have claimed comfortable victories at the then unbeaten St Helens and at Hull in recent weeks. Leeds, fresh from a tough victory at the in-form Castleford last week, have looked excellent so far this season and as a side famous for saving their best form for the business end of the season, supporters must hope they aren’t peaking too soon.
Nursing sore heads no doubt, fans returning for the second day of action will be joined by comrades from the remaining six clubs. In a traditional derby, Wakefield, who picked up two valuable points in a surprise win at Widnes in their last fixture, take on fourth-placed Castleford. That game is followed by Huddersfield taking on Bradford, in a game that should see the Giants win comfortably.
The weekend draws to a close with Warrington taking on St Helens in a game which is sure to be well-supported by both sets of fans making the short journey to Manchester. Both sides picked up comfortable wins in their last game, against Catalans and Bradford respectively, and will be looking to add a prized scalp of their local rivals. St Helens start as favourites, but Warrington should not be written-off in what promises to be an eagerly contested affair, which should hopefully tempt neutrals to stay in the ground long after their teams are gone.
As usual Sky Sports will show every match live, but the value for money that actually going to the Magic Weekend offers is excellent. Super League club season ticket holders are entitled to a 50% discount, meaning an adult’s weekend ticket is just £22.50, or £11.25 for concessions. One shudders to imagine how much a similar Premier League event would cost.
In a year that the NRL successfully introduced a season opening 9s tournament, the RFL will be eagerly hoping their version produces another excellent weekend of rugby, with eagerly contested fixtures offering fewer ‘blow-out’ scores. If not, envious eyes may once again gaze ‘down-under’ and a rebranding of the Magic Weekend could arrive as soon as next year.
Saturday 17th May
12:30 London Broncos v Catalan Dragons
14:45 Widnes Vikings v Salford Red Devils
17:00 Hull KR v Hull FC
19:15 Wigan Warriors v Leeds Rhinos
Sunday 18th May
12:30 Wakefield Wildcats v Castleford Tigers
14:45 Huddersfield Giants v Bradford Bulls
17:00 Warrington Wolves v St Helens