League Express editor MARTYN SADLER recommends the games you should go out of your way to watch this month.
“Oh to be in England now that April’s there,” wrote the poet Robert Browning in his poem ‘Home Thoughts from Abroad’, which was written when he spent some time in Italy in 1845.
Given the date, we can be sure that he wasn’t thinking about watching Rugby League.
But that doesn’t mean that a modern version of Browning might not have lamented missing out on some great Rugby League that is due to be played this month.
Here are five games this month, and not just in England, that we would recommend Browning’s descendant to watch, if he had been missing his Rugby League.
Saturday 1st April
Betfred Challenge Cup
Rochdale Mayfield v Newcastle Thunder
Mayfield Sports Centre, Castleton (1.00pm)
One of the great attractions of the Challenge Cup is that it allows amateur clubs to pit themselves against the professionals. The competition has a history of Cup shocks in which the amateurs have prevailed, but so far in 2023 Rochdale Mayfield are the only amateur team to have beaten a professional side, when they made the long journey to Cornwall to beat their League One rivals in the second round.
They will face a much tougher task in the fourth round, facing Newcastle Thunder from the Championship, with the Geordies having comfortably overcome amateur opposition in Stanningley.
No doubt Chris Thorman’s men will travel to Castleton with confidence, but Mayfield have plenty of players who have experienced the professional game, headed by 40-year-old Sean Penkywicz.
A place in the fifth round will be a massive incentive for both sides and they are sure to produce a memorable contest.
Friday 7th April
Betfred Super League
Wigan Warriors v St Helens
DW Stadium (3.00pm – Sky Sports)
It’s Good Friday and we can’t leave out Super League’s greatest derby – the annual clash between Wigan and Saints that was the original derby in the 19th century, when the two clubs located at the northern and southern ends of Lord Derby’s Knowsley estate originally started doing battle.
Frequently, when the Super League season gets to Good Friday, we find that these two teams occupy the top two positions in the league table. But that is unlikely to happen this year.
After both clubs suffered some unexpected early defeats, they will both be vying to climb up the table that after five rounds was being led by Warrington Wolves and Catalans Dragons.
It will be Paul Wellens’ first derby match in charge of St Helens, as it was Matty Peet’s first last season. After Wellens’ remarkable success in defeating Penrith Panthers in Australia to win the World Club Challenge, this will be the next big game that Saints fans will be desperate for him to win.
Sunday 9th April
Betfred Women’s Super League
Leeds Rhinos v York Valkyrie
Headingley Stadium (3.30pm – Sky Sports)
The Betfred Women’s Super League season kicks off with a spellbinder on Easter Sunday, as Leeds host York in a game that will precede the men’s Super League clash between Leeds Rhinos and Huddersfield Giants. Who could resist a tremendous offer of two matches for the price of one?
Both these two teams have stated that they will be paying their players in the 2023 season and, perhaps as a result of that, they have both been active in recruiting new talent, with the Rhinos’ most notable signing being Amy Hardcastle of St Helens, while the Valkyrie have snapped up Aimee Staveley from Leeds themselves.
The Rhinos won the Grand Final in 2022, while York won the League Leaders’ Shield, and both sides look certain to be in the mix for major trophies in 2023.
This game will surely lay down a marker for both teams’ prospects for the remainder of what looks likely to be a thrilling season.
Tuesday 25th April
Melbourne Storm v New Zealand Warriors
AAMI Park (10.00am – Sky Sports)
Each year on 25th April, Aussies and Kiwis celebrate Anzac Day, to commemorate their role in the First World War, and in particular to honour the members of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) who served in the Gallipoli Campaign against the Turkish army, when they suffered appalling losses.
The symbolic clash between the Storm and the Warriors is scheduled each year for Anzac Day and it has become almost a permanent fixture in Melbourne, often drawing the Storm’s highest crowd of the season, while being accompanied by military ceremonies to commemorate those who fell in the two world wars.
This could be the last year that the Storm will be coached by Craig Bellamy, while it is the first year that the Warriors are coached by Andrew Webster. It would be a tremendous feather in his cap for Webster if he could guide his side to victory and emulate the Canterbury Bulldogs, who inflicted a home defeat on the Storm in Round 2 of this season’s competition.
Saturday 29th April
Men’s and Women’s Internationals
England v France
Halliwell Jones Stadium, Warrington (2.00pm and 4.30pm – Sky Sports)
The England Men’s and Women’s teams will play a double-header against France in Warrington at the end of the month with live and exclusive coverage of both games on Sky Sports Arena from 1.30pm.
This will be the first game for the two men’s international teams since last year’s World Cup, when both suffered disappointment, with England going out at the semi-final stage and France failing to reach the quarter-finals.
The England women will also be playing their first game since the World Cup although that won’t be true of the French women, who will come into this game after having played Serbia in Avignon on 18th March.
These two games will be particularly important for the two French teams as they begin their build-up for the 2025 World Cup, which will be held in their country.
But from an English point of view, the main interest will probably lie in seeing whether coach Shaun Wane moves on from some of the older players who were in his World Cup and brings in some new, young vibrant talent, especially as he is likely to be without the NRL stars who played a role in England’s World Cup campaign.
This article is a modified version of Martyn Sadler’s ‘Final Whistle’ column, which features in the April edition of Rugby League World magazine. To take out a subscription, go to https://www.totalrl.com/rugby-league-world/