The Armchair Pundit: Rugby league’s Easter extravaganza at a crossroads

Given how the Easter period again proved a scintillating one on the field for Super League and beyond, it is a shame two of the biggest talking points from the past five days are both negatives.

Leaving aside the unsavoury scenes at the end of the Bank Holiday Monday clash between Huddersfield Giants and Salford Red Devils – more on that below – questions are again being raised about the viability of cramming two rounds of fixtures into such a short space of time.
The tradition of playing so many matches in a condensed period goes back to the very early days of the sport, with clubs wanting to make the most of a large swathe paying spectators having an extended period of time off work.

The fact even the much-maligned Thursday night fixture saw a sell-out 11,467 crowd show up to see Castleford Tigers down defending champions Leeds Rhinos 18-14 in a thriller shows the financial boost clubs can receive from the gate receipts.

Fans love this period too as not only to they get a glut of rugby league action, but Good Friday traditionally gives them the chance to exorcise a few local rivalries. Indeed, supporters of Warrington Wolves and Widnes Vikings, Wigan Warriors and St Helens, plus the two Hull clubs got the chance to see their sides test their mettle against their nearest and dearest.

But with such a quick turnaround needed for the Bank Holiday Monday games, there are genuine concerns about the welfare of the players, with Warrington head coach Tony Smith describing the whole format as “madness”.

Huddersfield prop Eorl Crabtree, who only featured in his side’s defeat to Salford on Monday, believes the demands of this period are getting too much for him and his team-mates in the modern game.

“I think we need to put more focus into the actual games themselves,” Crabtree told the BBC’s SLS2.

“If we’re going to play these games over the Easter period, maybe we can show a few more on TV, which would be fantastic for people to see the games.

“But it doesn’t mean we have to play more games. It’s very dangerous, you’re playing with people’s health and, for me personally, I think I was fortunate not to (play both games) because it would have been difficult to back it.”

Former Bradford player and Great Britain head coach Brian Noble concurred with Crabtree’s assessment and feels a reduction in the number of fixtures is needed.

“There’s a cumulative effect as well,” said Noble. “If you’re taking about an international player, they get very little break – maybe five weeks – and it’s just not enough.

“The only way they’re going to get time off is scrapping in or around Easter and if we’re going to keep Easter, at least everybody is on the same and knows what is happening.

“But you’ve got to reduce the amount of fixtures, for me, in a competition which is getting as intense as it is.”

Noble’s suggestion seems like the obvious answer, although the only way to create room in the calendar would be to axe the Magic Weekend, which seems highly unlikely given how it has become an established part of the calendar after a lukewarm reception in its formative years.

So why not simply spread one round of fixtures over the Easter weekend and extend the season by one week to get the other round in?

Again, this comes back to the player welfare issue.’s injury database shows the extend of the injury problems being suffered by teams in Super League and with preparations for the current season starting within weeks of the 2015 international series between England and New Zealand coming to a close, it is perhaps not a surprise with the players arguably not getting enough rest.

As Noble pointed out during the discussion over this subject on SLS2, the players on the NRL sides who came over for the World Club Series were, on average, three kilograms heavier than their Super League counterparts due to having a proper pre-season programme under their belts.

With rugby league players becoming bigger and stronger as sports science progresses, and the collisions and impacts in the game becoming harder on the body as a result, then more time is needed for players’ bodies to be able to recovery properly.

Few could argue a bumper Easter programme does not make sense during an era of full-time professional rugby and is unfair on the players, along with arguably diminishing the product.

Unfortunately, there seems no obvious answer to changing it or any will from the clubs themselves to do so.

Trouble on the terraces: Rugby league needs all the good publicity can get, so the unedifying images of Salford players Justin Carney and Junior Sa’u having to wade into the away end at the John Smith’s Stadium to protect their families after trouble flared at the final hooter of their 26-24 win over Huddersfield did no-one any favours.

There are concerns that this sort of violence is a growing problem – the Yorkshire Post’s Peter Smith flagged it up in a column last year – and a cursory search of the internet will bring up a list of incidents which drew media attention and plenty of anecdotal evidence of fighting in the stands at various fixtures.

Whether this is a modern trend or just becoming more widely reported is open to interpretation, although it is worth pointing out for perspective that such events were recorded even before the split in 1895.

Leeds Parish Church, for example, had their ground closed in 1891 after supporters attacked a referee and continuing crowd violence saw the club eventually disbanded all together in 1901.

No-one is suggesting rugby league is heading down the road of football in the 1970s and 1980s, where marauding gangs of thugs spread fear and violence everywhere they went.

But at the same time, The RFL cannot afford to bury their heads in the sand and simply dish out a few token fines and bans without actually addressing the concerns of the vast majority of law-abiding supporters – none of whom want to be subject to the sort of draconian laws which football fans, the vast majority of whom are also well-behaved, now have to abide by.

Salford owner Dr Marwan Koukash has already vowed to issue life bans to anyone found guilty of inciting the violence which spilled out onto the field and The RFL have launched an investigation.

Any group of people in any walk of life will have a minority who will cause trouble whatever the situation. Rugby league must weed out this minority and ensure the sport retains its reputation as a family game – preferably sooner rather than later.

Centurions on the march: Despite the pre-season turmoil and recent unpleasantness over the Ryan Brierley transfer, Leigh Centurions have so far proven themselves to again be among the contenders at the top of the Kingston Press Championship.

Wins over Swinton Lions and Workington Town across the Easter weekend saw Neil Jukes’ men go top of the table, although only on points difference from surprise package Batley Bulldogs.

But having seen off Dewsbury Rams 44-30 in the Heavy Woollen Derby, John Kear’s side then managed to survive a fightback from Whitehaven to win 24-23, having been 16-6 up at half time.

London Broncos still lead the chasing pack, with Bradford Bulls and Featherstone Rovers in there too with a game in hand each on the top three.

League One only had a single round of fixtures on Good Friday and with Toulouse Olympique not in action, it was an opportunity for the other top sides to press home their promotion credentials.

Rochdale Hornets lead the way after a convincing win over crisis club North Wales Crusaders, with Barrow just behind them in second after 24-24 draw at home to Newcastle Thunder.

The game of the weekend was arguably at the Prince of Wales Stadium in Cheltenham though, where a last-gasp drop goal from Joel James saw Coventry Bears edge Gloucestershire All Golds 29-28 in a thrilling contest.

Amateur score of the week: Ellenborough Rangers 18 Distington 36, Cumbria Mens League Premier Division. The defending champions have started as they mean to go on, with two wins from their first two matches.

Founded in 1969, Ellbenborough – or ‘Elbra’ as the locals pronounce it – notably reached the fifth round of the Challenge Cup in 1998, knocking out professional sides Bramley and Hunslet Hawks before losing to Hull Sharks.

Bonus amateur score of the week: Newsome Panthers 30 Underbank Rangers 12, Holliday Cup final. Pennine League Third Division side Newsome caused a stunning upset on Bank Holiday Monday as they overcame First Division Underbank to win the flagship Huddersfield & District ARL knock-out competition for the second time in three years.

Comments? Questions? Complaints? Email [email protected] with the subject line ‘The Armchair Pundit’, tweet @gamethatgotaway or leave a comment below.

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