Peter Smith: Time for Wembley cup final experience to once again become ‘magic’

Castleford Tigers and Leeds Rhinos enter the field in the final game of the Dacia Magic Weekend.
Castleford Tigers and Leeds Rhinos enter the field in the final game of the Dacia Magic Weekend.
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THE MAGIC Weekend just gone was a good event – on and off the field – but thought needs to be given to its future.

This year was the 11th Magic and the third time an entire Betfred Super League round has been staged over one weekend at Newcastle United’s St James’ Park.

Ryan Hall with the Challenge Cup.

Ryan Hall with the Challenge Cup.

No decision has yet been announced on whether there will be a 2018 Magic Weekend and, if so, where it will be played. But it appears alternative venues are being considered for next May.

Coventry, Liverpool, Manchester – which has held the event three times in the past – and London have all been mentioned as possible hosts.

There may be financial considerations to take into account, but rather than switching from Newcastle, which is the most ideal venue, perhaps the Rugby Football League should consider scrapping Magic and doing more to promote the Challenge Cup final instead.

That would not mean the Magic concept has been a failure. It hasn’t – it has spread the gospel outside the heartlands and provided some memorable moments.

But the event has not developed as it should have done over the decade since it began in 2007.

The combined attendance that year was 58,831.

Last weekend a total of 65,407 turned up, some of those being counted twice after attending both days. So over the past 10 years the Magic audience has grown, but not significantly.

It is telling that this year’s Magic Weekend is followed by a second bank holiday double-header, with most of the 12 Super League teams due to play today or tomorrow and again on Monday, a month and a half after a similar fixture pile-up over Easter.

Magic is an additional game and scrapping it would ease congestion in the fixture list. It would also make the regular season fairer, with all teams playing each other once home and away.

The annual debate over where next for the Magic Weekend has coincided with reports the RFL may consider moving the Challenge Cup final away from Wembley due to declining crowds. That would be a nail in the coffin of a competition which has been ailing since the final was shunted back three months to August, in 2005.

There would have been a case for keeping the final on the road a decade or so ago before the new Wembley opened. Trips to Cardiff and Edinburgh made a welcome change and in fact laid the foundations for the Magic Weekend, which later visited both those cities.

But that boat has sailed. Banks of empty seats at Challenge Cup finals are a concern, but the way to deal with falling crowds is not by moving to a smaller venue, such as London’s Olympic Stadium, it is by pulling out the stops to promote the match and the competition as a whole.

One way of breathing life into the Challenge Cup would be by reverting to a pre- and early-season tournament with a final in late April or early May, but that would have to be instead of Magic.

The sport can’t have two major spring showcases and a Challenge Cup resurgence would bring more benefits than the Magic Weekend, with it being broadcast on terrestrial television and still regarded as the sport’s premier prize by viewers outside the heartlands.

However, if Magic is to be persisted with it should stay in Newcastle, which is a vibrant city with a stadium right in the centre. The locals are friendly – and, unlike Cardiff for example – keen to host the event. There’s good access by road and rail and it is far enough away from the heartlands to make it worth an overnight stay, but not too distant.

What could change is the fixture list. Rather than have the RFL decide who plays who, fixtures should be based on the Super League table – so the weekend could begin with 12th on the table playing 11th and build up to second versus first in the final match on the Sunday evening.

This year Magic was staged the week after a Ladbrokes Challenge Cup round so everyone would have had two weeks’ notice of when and who they are playing.

The risk is fans would not book and the early matches may not attract the crowds, but if the event is successful fans would be willing to turn up whatever the fixture list throws at them.

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