Leeds Rhinos and rugby league fans missing their Boxing Day tradition

RUGBY LEAGUE has changed massively over the decades, but there has been one constant – a Boxing Day morning fixture at Headingley.

Saturday, 26th December 2020, 6:05 am
Tradition: Supporters cram into Headingley for the Boxing Day fixture between Leeds Rhinos and Wakefield. (Picture: Steve Riding)

This year, for the first time since 1982, Leeds have no game scheduled over the holiday period. Coronavirus, which delayed the end of the 2020 season until last month and therefore put back pre-season training to January, has done what even a switch to so-called summer rugby could not, by putting the Christmas tradition on hold.

Even had the players been available, there would be little point staging a fixture designed purely to give fans an opportunity to get out of the house on the morning after Christmas and boost clubs’ coffers midway through the off-season.

Other clubs also have a Boxing Day tradition. Dewsbury Rams and Batley Bulldogs alternate home advantage in an annual Heavy Woollen derby and Castleford Tigers are another who regularly play over the Christmas period, but December 26 is synonymous with Leeds and Headingley.

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Leeds Rhinos v Wakefield Trinity Wildcats Boxing Day Challenge at Headingley, 2015 (Picture: Steve Riding)

Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington, who kicked two goals in Leeds’ 22-16 win over neighbours Hunslet on this day in 1979, was responsible for reviving Christmas rugby after he and chairman Paul Caddick bought the club in the autumn of 1996.

Super League and the switch to a summer season was expected to end festive fixtures, but Hetherington recalled: “We took over in October and immediately I got a huge number of people asking ‘what are we doing on Boxing Day?’.

“My first reaction was ‘it’s summer rugby now, we are not playing on Boxing Day’. Really, it was the amount of interest in playing that made the decision for us. I quickly got in touch with Halifax and a game against them was arranged at relatively short notice.

“The players weren’t expecting to play, nobody was, but such is the level of interest in it, it has been maintained every year since.”

Look at that crowd - Leeds Rhinos v Wakefield Boxing Day match

Until the end of the 1950s, rugby was played throughout the Christmas period. In 1958, Leeds played Featherstone Rovers at Headingley on Christmas Day, were at Workington Town on Boxing Day and Whitehaven away on December 27, losing all three – along with Great Britain scrum-half Jeff Stevenson to a club suspension which ultimately led to his transfer to York.

Leeds’ final Christmas Day match was 61 years ago at Batley, where they were beaten 8-6. In the early 1960s undersoil heating was installed at Headingley, ensuring matches would go ahead however foul the weather. That proved a masterly investment by Leeds’ board and the BBC Grandstand cameras became regular visitors.

With a game guaranteed, Leeds were handed home advantage, often against Wakefield or Castleford, in the first game after Christmas.

Thirty-eight years ago there was no Boxing Day game and instead, Leeds faced Widnes in a JP Trophy semi-final, at Fartown, in Huddersfield, two days later.

It was not until 1994 that the Loiners were forced to travel on Boxing Day. That season, they visited the Boulevard and gave their supporters a late present with a rare 24-20 victory over Hull. Since then, Headingley has been without a Boxing Day game only twice. Nine years ago, a frozen pitch led to the game against regular opponents Wakefield being called off and rearranged for New Year’s Day. In 2017, with Headingley being rebuilt, the match was switched as a one-off to Belle Vue.

Hetherington has no doubt, Covid permitting, rugby will return to Headingley this time next year. He admitted: “It will be strange for me personally, I go back to being eight or nine years old, coming to Headingley to watch Castleford.

“When I was a player I played every Boxing Day and I have been involved ever since. I can’t remember the last Boxing Day when I wasn’t at a game, in one capacity or another.

“It is maintained purely because there’s a public interest in it.

“It is also tradition, we are heavy on tradition and heritage and Boxing Day at Headingley is part of Christmas tradition.”

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