Is it Time to Scrap the Easter Weekend Double Header?

‘Horrible’ and ‘unfair’ are the words Warrington Wolves Head Coach Tony Smith has used to describe the Super League Easter Weekend double header. Traditionally Super League teams have been asked to play 2 games in 4 days over the Easter period, often resulting in some of the highest attendances for clubs all year. However, complaints have risen in recent years highlighting player fatigue and the impact on travelling long distances for teams playing away at Catalan or London in such a short amount of time. The RFL have opened discussions this week to scrap the double header weekend, and teams could be asked to play just the 1 game over Easter from next year. So is it time to scrap the Easter weekend double header, or should professional rugby league players be capable of giving two top performances in 4 days?

Player fatigue is something that Warrington Head Coach Tony Smith alluded to after his side’s 44-6 win over local rivals Widnes on Friday.

“Player welfare is the main thing when you’re asking some of the boys to back up in two days’ time. They’re still going to have fatigue in their bodies. It’s unfair; it shortens the appreciation of what they go through. Hopefully it’s over after this year.”
Rugby League is certainly one of the toughest, most physical and gruelling sports there is. The big hits the players endure for 80 minutes is extraordinary, as well as the pace at which the top quality games are played at. The first games tend to be a lot closer over the Easter period, with the players giving a higher performance level. The top teams are better equipped to cope with this going into the 2nd game in 4 days, which was evident in Wigan’s flawless 84-6 victory over Bradford on Monday.

As well as physical exhaustion, the mental tiredness and emotion that the derby fixtures produce shouldn’t be underestimated. On Thursday we had Leeds taking on Bradford, as well as a thrilling Hull derby, which saw KR win after a last minute drop goal. Friday saw the annual Good Friday fixture between St Helens and Wigan, as well as Warrington vs Widnes and Wakefield vs Castleford. Local derbies are the games which players look forward to the most, with big crowds and high emotions with local pride at stake. It particularly means a lot to the players who are playing for their hometown teams, and asking them to recover from a derby fixture, both physically and emotionally, in a short space of time is a big ask. I’d argue that the Saints players were still recovering from the loss to Wigan on Good Friday when they were beaten by Widnes 40-26 on Monday.

Travel arrangements also take their toll on the players, which Hull KR coach Craig Sandercock has pointed to this week:

“I am sure everyone is sick of me whinging about it but the short turn-around is made worse by us having to travel. But we have to travel two and a half hours to get to an airport and, because we’d have to leave Hull at 4am to get the 9am flight from Liverpool – and the players wouldn’t get any sleep the day before the game – we’re forced to set off on Saturday. Some people underestimate how hard it is to do that straight after a game. It would have been preferable not to spend seven or eight hours travel time to play.”

The team who has to travel away to Catalan during the Easter period draws the short straw, and you’d highlight the amount of travelling in the short space of time as the main factor as to why the Dragons beat the Robins 37-24 on Monday.

In order to counteract this, as well as being televised, the Hull derby was moved to Thursday night, giving the Robins an extra day to make travel arrangements and to recover. However, Leeds vs Bradford and London vs Catalan were also played on Thursday night. Considering both Hull and Leeds only had to make a short away trip down the road on the Thursday, before playing at home on the Monday, you do wonder how significant an advantage the extra day was to both sides. The two teams won convincingly on Easter Monday.

On the other hand, playing games on Good Friday and Easter Monday is not uncommon in other sports, and doesn’t draw any controversy from pundits, coaches or fans. Football League sides are asked to play 2 fixtures in 4 days, and that’s having already played 42 league games in the season (excluding cup fixtures). People will argue that having a big squad is needed to do well in the Super League, and it’s the ultimate test of the coach to utilise that squad to cope with the heavy fixture demand. Finally, fans love the Easter weekend, and most find enjoyment out of watching two games over the bank holiday weekend.

The result of scrapping the double header weekend by the RFL could lead to complications for the fixture list. An obvious way to balance it would be the removal of the Magic Weekend, although that’s unlikely with the RFL looking to use the weekend to promote the sport and make a profit. Adding an extra week to the season is another possibility, although this could interfere with the international fixtures, something the sport doesn’t want to do after last year’s world cup.

Few will argue that the demands of playing 2 games in 4 days is tough on Rugby League players, and only intensified by the first game being a local derby for most. Whatever resolution the RFL finds, let’s hope it’s one that pleases players, coaches and fans.

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