Lonely without you - but Leeds Rhinos chief promises festive fixture will return

Boxing Day will not be the same without a Leeds Rhinos game at Emerald Headingley - and chief executive Gary Hetherington says this year is just a one-off pause in the long-standing tradition.

Saturday, 26th December 2020, 6:00 am
Mitch Achurch breaks through the Wakefield defence on Boxing Day, 2015. Picture by Steve Riding.

There will be no Wetherby Whaler Festive Challenge against Wakefield Trinity this morning, because of coronavirus restrictions and the late finish to the 2020 Betfred Super League campaign which delayed the start of Rhinos’ pre-season until January 4.

It is the first time in 38 years Leeds have not had a game scheduled for Boxing Day and Hetherington reckons he - and most Rhinos fans - will find having nothing to do on Boxing Day morning a strange experience.

Hetherington revived the Christmas fixture when he and chairman Paul Caddick bought the club in the autumn of 1996.

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The switch to summer rugby at the start of the year was expected to end festive matches, 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 years since.”

Gate receipts from Boxing Day are shared between the two teams, giving clubs a welcome financial boost during the off-season.

But coaches and players - who are usually a month and a half into pre-season - will breathe a quiet sigh of relief at this year’s break.

Injuries are always a concern and in 2005 Leeds’ Australian signing Mark O’Neill missed the start of the season after suffering shoulder damage just five minutes into his debut in the festive fixture.

Without a match to prepare for, players will also be able to enjoy an extra portion of Christmas pud’ before they report in to begin training in the new year, but - despite many big-names being rested - the Boxing Day fixture has remained popular with fans.

Twelve months ago, a crowd of 10,106 watched Leeds retain the Festive Challenge trophy with a 30-4 win over Trinity and Hetherington admitted: “It will be strange for me personally.”

He said: “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 and we do know there are relatives [of fans] who come to Leeds over Christmas and look forward to coming to the game, which is maybe the only one they go to all year.

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

Provided Covid-19 permits, Hetherington pledged the Boxing Day game will return in 2021.

He said: “Everything has been cancelled this year, the Hall of Fame, Players’ Association lunch, Christmas lunch.

“The Boxing Day Wetherby Whaler Festive Challenge is a victim of Covid, just as everything else has been.”

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