This article, written by Dave Hadfield, originally appeared in issue 398 of Rugby League World magazine. Issue 399 is currently in production and will be on sale from June 6. Click here to find out more about the magazine and to browse back issues click this link…
Easter double-headers are set for the scrap heap from 2015 onwards. But is that a good thing?
It’s to be hoped we all enjoyed Easter this year. Plenty of fish on Good Friday, egg-rolling down the nearest hill, nibbling the ears off chocolate rabbits – that sort of thing.
From a rugby point of view, the weekend is not going to be quite the same again. The rationalists have got their way; the double programme of bank holiday games is doomed. The constant campaign of complaint – much of it delivered in an Australian accent – has finally worn away the stone.
Easter Monday, the traditional day for a full programme and the second match of the weekend, doesn’t seem to have a friend left. From 2015, what we are likely to have is a single round of games, possibly stretching from Thursday to Monday. Nobody will be required to play twice.
In the days of winter rugby, Easter was more often than not the weekend when the league title was decided. That was the way it was when Wigan won it for the first two times in 1986-7 and 1989-90. The latter title, in particular, had to be sweated out in a run-in that included the traditional St Helens derby.
You knew where you were in those days. Or at least, you had a rough idea. My personal low-point came when, for some obscure reason, Saints were at home for two consecutive Good Fridays and I arrived at a deserted Central Park before I discovered the mistake. That’s what happens when you mess with tradition.
Since the start of summer rugby, of course, the Easter weekend has played a very different role. Nothing is won at Easter any more, but a good Easter is a hinge upon which the rest of the season can swing upwards.
Look at the results this year, for instance. Warrington hammering Widnes, then getting hammered at Castleford. Widnes recovering from that to beat St Helens. Saints losing twice, a previously insipid Huddersfield winning twice, along with Wigan and the new leaders, Leeds. Those results wouldn’t be half as interesting if they weren’t in such close proximity.
The great thing about the Easter double-header is that it asks different questions of a squad of players. It isn’t them who bellyache about it, though; it’s the coaches, who want to keep everything neat, tidy and evenly spaced.
Oddly enough, a lot of the ones who complain the loudest and longest have been involved with clubs who have had players backing-up from State of Origin, no less, and have thought nothing of it. I’d rather have to go round again after playing the London Broncos than after a brisk work-out with Queensland.
The Widnes coach, Denis Betts, put this wariness of the unpredictable as well as anyone this Easter Monday.
“It’s always a difficult day, this,” he said. “You don’t know what you’re going to get.”
No, you don’t – and that’s one of the delights of the Easter programme, with its quick turn-around. And one of the things we might well miss when it’s gone.
In the spirit of anything-can-happen, there are two Easter Mondays I’d like to revisit. The first, you won’t be surprised to hear, is what we might call Millward’s Meltdown of 2004. (Yes, it’s really ten years ago since Ian of that ilk, then the coach of St Helens, tried to bring Easter Mondays into permanent disrepute).
There is no tradition of Easter Monday fixtures between Saints and their opponents, Bradford, but, given the intensity of their rivalry in the “noughties,” it was a logical match-up.
Sure enough, the two clubs were among the early season pace-setters in Super League. Saints had drawn with Wigan on Good Friday, whilst Bradford had the one-day advantage of having played and lost to Leeds on the Thursday night.
What happened next had longer-lasting repercussion than almost any act of team selection you can think of. Millward made 11 changes from the team that drew with Wigan, drawing the classic remark from the Bulls’ coach, Brian Noble, that they had turned up ready to play George Foreman and had instead been faced with George Formby.
Turned out nice again? Not really. Saints reserves, including four debutants and with Jon Wilkin sent off after ten minutes, were thrashed 54-8. None of those four – Phil Anderton, Mike Roby, Peter Cook and Ian Kenny – ever played Super League again, but they have a special little footnote of their own in the history of the club.
Martin Gleeson and Sean Long did play plenty more, of course, but only after serving long bans for using their inside knowledge to bet on Bradford to win the match, in which Gleeson played, but Long didn’t.
The moral was clear; don’t monkey with Easter Monday.
When I cast my mind back to an Easter Monday when you just felt thrilled to be there, I go back to 2007 and the first-ever Humberside derby in Super League.
The two clubs had not faced each other since the old First Division and the Divisional Play-offs in 1997 and it had never been part of the Super League blueprint to have them both in that competition. In the end, though, it just had to be.
The anticipation before this reunion was some of the keenest that any one could remember. The event lived up to it, with 23,002 – I like the 2 – at the KC Stadium. The action lived up to it, as well, with Rovers recovering from an early 12-0 deficit to give Hull a real scare, before Sid Domic’s last-minute try clinched a 22-14 win.
The clear man of the match was Paul Cooke and, in the sort of thing that can only happen in rugby league in Hull, he was a Rovers player by the end of that month.
The game itself, though, had been everything an Easter Monday fixture should be; intense, emotional and dripping with local rivalry.
It’s only fair to point out that it isn’t always like that. To illustrate that fact, we can go back to Wigan, or rather to their Easter Monday trip to Craven Park last year.
I don’t know who it was that decided Wigan and Hull KR were natural bank holiday opponents, but Rovers were soon wishing that they’d found somebody else. Wigan recorded their biggest-ever league win – 84-6, with Blake Green scoring a hat-trick against his former club.
Preposterously, they won the latest – and last? – Easter Monday non-derby by the same score over Bradford a couple of weeks ago.
That proves it, I suppose, two matches in swift succession tend to produce one-sided boil-overs in the second game. When you get two 84-6 scorelines in a year, someone is trying to tell you something – but I’ll still miss Easter Mondays.