THE motivation behind shifting the Magic Weekend to the opening round of the season was to start Engage Super League with a bang.
Unfortunately, last week’s festival of rugby was more of a damp squib and any neutrals watching must have been disappointed – though to a certain extent it was saved by a couple of thrilling finishes and one or two surprise results.
Realistically, the first round of the season isn’t the time to show off rugby league’s most exciting skills.
From the opening game – an error-strewn clash between Huddersfield Giants and Warrington Wolves – signs of ring rust were obvious.
The players weren’t helped by the greasy conditions, caused by the closed roof. That may have contributed to the worrying number of injuries, particularly in early matches.
But that aside, players’ timing was off, passes went into touch and to ground on a painfully regular basis and – though there were flashes of individual magic from the likes of Rangi Chase, Danny Brough and Ben Jones-Bishop – the overall entertainment value in most games was low. It’s a similar story in the early rounds of any campaign and clearly the standard will be higher later in the year, when teams have begun to gel, get used to new game plans and become match-fit and battle-hardened.
The nadir was the set-to between Castleford and Wakefield, which was ruined as any sort of spectacle by a record 37 penalties, 22 of those to Tigers.
Whether that was down to pedantic refereeing, players’ ill-discipline or poor coaching is open to debate, but it was far, far too many.
Referees need to realise that they are there to aid the entertainment, not detract from it.
Events like this week’s Carnegie Challenge Cup third round draw don’t help in that regard.
Was it really a good idea to have the draw made by a current match official – Richard Silverwood, who was one of the better referees last weekend – alongside retired whistler Billy Thompson?
The players – and to an extent coaches – are supposed to be the stars of the sport, not referees who should have no more influence on the action than the goal posts. Has anyone – other than a relative – ever paid to watch a referee in action? The RFL seems to be keen to turn them into personalities and that’s a bad idea.
Things got slightly better after the James Child show as St Helens’ fightback against Wigan Warriors and the exciting Leeds-Bradford clash provided something for the 60,000 total crowd to get excited about.
Controversy in the West Yorkshire derby was inevitable. Referee Steve Ganson did a good job, but Bulls could feel aggrieved at at least one of video judge Silverwood’s decisions.
Not the penalty try at the end – which was a fair call, though Leeds would probably have settled for a two-pointer and a draw – but Chev Walker’s earlier disallowed effort, which looked to be a fair touchdown.
Incidentally, match commissioner Gerry Kershaw felt Ganson was right not to sin-bin Gareth Raynor for taking out Jones-Bishop off the ball in the decisive late incident.
Leeds’ Brett Delaney was yellow carded for obstruction earlier in the game, but according to Kershaw, the penalty try against Raynor was deemed to be sufficient punishment.
Though the result went against them Bulls were very good and at least last weekend’s clash suggested Bradford versus Leeds games will be a contest again this year, which – considering Bulls latent support – is a good thing for the sport.
So what else did we learn from round one?
Castleford look like being a decent side this year, if they can keep their first-choice squad fit and available.
Rangi Chase and Danny Orr’s half-back partnership is going to be fun to watch and in the likes of Joe Arundel, Adam Milner and Oliver Holmes, Tigers have unearthed exciting talents for the future.
On the other hand, it is going to be a long, hard season for Wakefield and the sooner new owners are in place, the better.
On Saturday, almost at full-strength, Wakefield looked very short of experience and fire-power up front.
Sam Obst’s departure to Hull and the loss of Dale Ferguson to Huddersfield, with Daryl Millard having joined Catalan yesterday – will make matters even worse.
Wildcats have plenty of spirit and enthusiasm and some good young players, but the squad urgently needs strengthening.
Elsewhere, Huddersfield Giants will be genuine title contenders this season. They have a huge, talented squad and on last weekend’s evidence, Danny Brough could be one of the most influential players in the competition this year.
Warrington Wolves will get better, but injuries could have a key bearing on their campaign.
Harlequins may surprise one or two people and Catalan (they have apparently formally dropped the s) will be more competitive once their new-look side gels.
They played some good rugby at times last weekend, but the final product was lacking.
Wigan Warriors again will be the team to beat, though everybody wants to take them down a peg.
Their disrespectful action on Saturday – when they came out to warm-up on the side of the pitch during the James Child show – was arrogant and won’t have won them any friends.
As for Saints, it’s the old cliché – you can’t write them off, either in a game or a season. From 16-0 down, they salvaged a morale-boosting point and they’ll be in the mix again this year, though Kyle Eastmond looked like a player who wished he was somewhere else. Crusaders pulled off the opening weekend’s biggest win, but find themselves bottom of the table thanks to a pre-season four-point deduction.
Jarrod Sammut is their joker and in Michael Witt, they boast one of the most talented players in the competition.
Their squad looks a bit thin, but they may not be far off another play-off qualification. And Iestyn Harris has the makings of a very good coach.
Some pundits have tipped Salford City Reds to reach the eight this season. They will need a massive improvement following last Sunday’s awful effort – and there won’t be a dafter moment this year than the punch which led to Wayne Godwin’s 80th minute red card.
Hull showed what they are capable of when they raced into a big early lead against their city neighbours, but old failings then resurfaced and it won’t take long for pressure to mount on coach Richard Agar.
Hull KR will be a threat at full-strength and stand-off Blake Green has the potential to be on of the season’s top signings.