Here we go again at Manchester’s Ethiad Stadium. Fourteen clubs, two days, seven matches and well over 30,000 fans all taking in the party atmosphere that only rugby league can generate.
In no other sport could you sit fans of every club in the same stadium and get nothing but friendly banter and laughter.
Day one kicks off on Saturday with London Broncos taking on the Catalan Dragons at 12.30.
The Broncos are most people’s tips to drop out of Super League come the end of season restructure, and so far, it’s looking likely that despite the best efforts of new head coach Joe Grima, that is what’s going to happen. Having not won a game all season, It’s getting a little late in the day to mount an assault on a play-off spot for the London club.
Catalan on the other hand are going from strength to strength. At Home… On the road, their only win has been at London Broncos. Laurent Frayssinous will be more than happy to meet London on Saturday, despite the drubbing that his team took at Warrington last week. I’m going to say a Catalan win but only by between 4 to 8 points.
Game 2 is Widnes Vikings v Salford Red Devils. The last time these two met, Widnes dumped Salford out of the Challenge Cup in round five with a 20-30 defeat at the A.J. Bell stadium. Iestyn Harris will want revenge having seen his team push on from that point to lose away to Catalan and take a creditable point at home to Hull KR in the driving Salford rain last week. Having Dr Koukash on Twitter no doubt pointing out every little error, or perceived error that his team of mercenaries make can’t help. I’ve only once seen a sporting club buy a title. Blackburn Rovers. Jack Walker achieved his dream & after that, nothing. I’d rather see Salford build a team of good, local talent, sprinkled with the odd player like Rangi Chase who can turn a game in the teams favour. That sort of commitment takes a few years to achieve, not overnight.
Denis Betts will be looking to cement his teams push for a top 5 spot having taken points from St Helens and other clubs who would have play-off ambitions, Widnes are looking like a club who really have benefited from the licencing years by building slowly and making season on season improvements to the squad (See?) rather than splashing out on big names to fill a stadium. Widnes will be the bookies favourites for this one, but I see a sneaky win for the devils here. A second close game, but with Salford snatching a one point win.
Game three sees a load of empty seats as Hull City take on Arsenal in the FA Cup final at Wembley. With the RFL seemingly able to alter league games to suit Sky, it is unwilling to move one to help an entire city watch all three of its sports clubs on the same day. I wonder if the decision not to move it was motivated in part by the fact that Sky are in competition with BT Sport and BT Sport have the FA Cup?
Either way, it’s a damn shame that many fans of both Rugby league and football will have to make a choice as to what they do come 5pm and kick off.
As it is, Hull FC will be looking to bounce back from a series of results that leaves them in mid table, above local rivals Hull KR only due to the for/against column is in their favour. Lee Radford will also be looking to improve on their last meeting when Rovers edged a close and Craig Hall scored a last minute drop goal to seal a home win for the Robins.
Post Salford, Craig Sandercock said that with a bit of luck, the Robins would put a lot of points past a team. Today will not be the day that happens. Derby games are notoriously difficult to win, and given the last two meetings at magic weekend, it will take an error by an official to split these two.
This will be a draw.
Last game of the day sees Wigan v Leeds. Once again, the RFL have saved the best until last for day one.
Wigan on their day are unstoppable. Matty Bowen seems to have really settled in to the side now and the coach Shaun Wane will really want to close the gap on the current league leaders as he plots to retain the titles he won last year in both the league and the Challenge Cup.
Brian McDermott on the other hand has very little troubling him as he plots to retake Leeds back to the top of the pile and regain the title they last won in 2012. As well as strengthening with players of the calibre of Tom Briscoe, they have established players like Zak Hardaker who are all capable of turning a game into a win from a possible loss. Then you have the man, the legend, Jamie Peacock. Possibly the finest player of the modern era and rightly looking like he’ll be a contender for yet another man of steel award, only 11 years after he won it first time around.
Again, I cant split these by much, but with vocal support from a lot of fans for both sides, and the partisan support of the neutrals, I see Leeds taking this by 6 points.
Sunday sees the final three games of the weekend.
First up is Wakefield Wildcats v Castleford Tigers. This is probably one of the easier games to call. Cas under Daryl Powell have been one of the surprise packages of the season so far. Wakefield on the other hand have struggled to put together a run of results. Mathew Ryan has conceded nine penalties so far this season and coach Richard Agar will really hope that his players can put the Magic weekend curse behind them (Wakefield have only won two of the magic weekend fixtures dating back to its inception in 2007) and especially on the back of their win away at Widnes.
Powell on the other hand will want to get his teams season back on track, following their defeat to Leeds. With extra time to prepare his players, He will be looking for an immediate response and a chance to consolidate a top play off spot as early as possible.
I say Wakefield are due the win and will do so by at least 6 points.
Game two is going to be so one sided as to be embarrassing. Huddersfield Giants will absolutely obliterate the Bradford Bulls.
With all due respect to Francis Cummins, Bradford have looked by far the team (London aside) most likely to go down this season. Last weeks 50-0 drubbing by Saints will have left a bad taste in the mouth of both players and fans alike, but Huddersfield are intent on making it as far up the play-off ladder as possible. This will be Huddersfield’s day and I suspect it will be the most one sided affair of the weekend.
Huddersfield by at least 24 points.
Bringing the weekend to a close for another year is the Warrington v St Helens clash.
Another difficult one this. Both clubs could be suffering from a World Cup hangover, given the number of players both had involved in the tournament. On their day, Saints are unstoppable, just ask Castleford! I still cant work out how that game was lost in the final couple of minutes…
Warrington on the other hand are blowing hot and cold. Tony Smith is certainly thankful for the Monaghan brothers and their abilities to change the course of games with a moment of magic. Aside from a shock defeat to Bradford, its almost been business as usual over at the Halliwell Jones.
I cant see a lot of daylight between these and will reserve judgement as to the final winner, but will say it wont be by a lot.