Inside RL: Weekend in danger of losing its Magic – Smith

Jamie Peacock powers through Wigan's Michael McIlorum and Dom Crosby.
Jamie Peacock powers through Wigan's Michael McIlorum and Dom Crosby.
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THERE ARE pros and cons to the Magic Weekend concept, but no doubt this year is crucial for the event.

All seven First Utility Super League round 13 fixtures will be played at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium, with four on Saturday and the rest the following afternoon/evening.

Magic is now in its eighth season, but long-term decisions will have to be made about the weekend going forward.

On the positive side, Magic is a day – or weekend – out for supporters, has created ‘an event’ and is an opportunity to showcase the sport at an elite level. The image of fans from all clubs mixing happily together is a good one for the code and it is chance for Sky TV – who broadcast every game live – to promote the sport to a wide audience, across two full afternoons of coverage.

So far so good, but the Magic Weekend has yet to take off in terms of fans through the turnstiles. The attendance when the event first visited Manchester in 2012 was a record 63,716, but rather than building on that, last year’s gate was down by around 5,000.

More tickets than ever have, apparently, been sold this time and there does seem to be a great deal of anticipation ahead of what looks to be an attractive list of fixtures, but attendances should have been increasing year-on-year since Magic first began and the fact they aren’t has to be a concern.

It may be supporters don’t want to see their side play another team three times in one season. Leeds Rhinos face Wigan Warriors in the final game on Saturday, just 15 days after the sides met at Headingley Carnegie. It’s entirely possible Leeds and Wigan will meet in the Challenge Cup this year and maybe a couple of times in the play-offs, plus three league encounters.

Other matches – for example Castleford Tigers’ derby with Wakefield Trinity Wildcats and the opening match between Catalan Dragons and London Broncos – are a repeat of Easter games played a month ago.

The Magic Weekend is a manufactured fixture, so teams play all their rivals home and away, plus the extra game in Manchester. With the relegation being re-introduced this season and a new format from 2015, that additional game could make a huge difference.

Is it fair that some clubs have a tougher game at Magic than others? Clearly it isn’t, but how can that be avoided? The RFL have tried a draw in the past or basing the fixtures on the previous season’s final placings, but have decided derbies or Leeds-Wigan type blockbusters are the way to go.

Perhaps, in the interest of fairness, they could be really innovative and confirm the fixtures the week before the event, so the leaders after round 12 play the second placed team, third versus fourth and so on. That potentially would inconvenience fans, though with the event being staged in Manchester – a couple of hours’ drive away from most top-flight clubs – it shouldn’t be too much of a problem.

Magic was originally devised as a way of promoting the sport outside its heartland areas, so early weekends were staged in Cardiff and Edinburgh, offering a trip away and chance to do something different, but the move to Manchester means many supporters now simply travel on the day – only watching their team’s game – and it has become just another fixture. Now it is no longer a development tool there has to be a question mark over whether Magic can survive the changes being introduced next year.

Fans have an opportunity to vote with their feet this weekend, but if there isn’t a significant increase in the gate, certainly from last year, it may be time to try something different.

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The Magic Weekend can usually be guaranteed to produce thrills, spills and controversy and this year’s intriguing fixture list offers more of the same.

Steve Ganson, above, has been at the heart of the event’s two biggest talking points, but will be hoping for a quieter time this year, as video official for the opening and lowest-profile game of the weekend, Catalan Dragons v London Broncos.

Hopefully this time it will be the players who create the headlines and most of the fixtures do offer points of interest, though it is difficult to get excited about the Sunday afternoon clash between Bradford Bulls and Huddersfield Giants, particularly after the latter’s huge win at Odsal earlier in the season. Catalan’s poor away form offers London an opportunity to pick up their first win of the year, while Salford Red Devils will be under huge pressure against surprise package Widnes Vikings. Hull-Hull KR derbies are always fiery affairs and if the Leeds-Wigan showdown is as good at the clash 15 days earlier, it will be a cracker. On Sunday Wakefield will look to make it three wins on the bounce and inflict a third successive defeat on Castleford and it will be fascinating to see if Warrington really are back on track, against St Helens.

Joe Wardle.

Castleford Tigers sign Joe Wardle from Newcastle Knights on a three-year deal from 2018