As coaches begin finalising their squads for their respective Boxing Day fixtures, a combination of joy and anticipation permeates the atmosphere within Rugby League.
Supporters, many of whom have not seen their beloved side take to the field since September, are finally given an opportunity to see a live game of Rugby League over the Christmas period. But what could potentially be in store for those fans braving the cold on Boxing Day?
Castleford Tigers host local and bitter rivals Featherstone Rovers down at the Mend-a-Hose Jungle on Tuesday the 26th in what promises to be a no-love-lost affair. With Tigers’ head coach Daryl Powell naming a 21-man squad featuring a combination of youth and new signings, the Castleford faithful should not be expecting to see the slick, perfectly-structured attacking play which earned the Tigers so many plaudits in 2017. But, Tigers’ fans should not be disheartened; most of the players on show will be battling for a shirt in 2018 and will not want to disappoint.
Rovers’ boss John Duffy, on the other hand, will likely field his most strongest team possible. Duffy has confirmed that new signings Tom Holmes, Martin Ridyard, Scott Wheeldon and Shaun Robinson will all play though Ian Hardman, Richard Moore and Darrell Griffin miss out. On paper, the disparity between the sides does not appear to be that wide, but, Super League quality and stamina may prove to be the difference in the end.
The only all-Super League clash sees Wakefield Trinity do battle against Grand Final winners Leeds Rhinos. The “Festive Challenge” – as this annual fixture is named – has been won by Wakefield the past two years, including an emphatic 30-6 victory in 2016. Wakefield coach, Chris Chester, has named a very strong 20-man squad for the fixture, including new signings Jordan Baldwinson, Pauli Pauli and Justin Horo, whilst youngsters Christian Ackroyd, James Batchelor and Luke Hooley will also have a chance to impress.
If Wakefield’s squad looks strong on paper then Leeds’ looks even stronger; Richie Myler, Nathaniel Peteru and Brad Dwyer are all included in Brian McDermott’s 19-man squad as are six Grand Final winners – Tom Briscoe, Liam Sutcliffe, Brad Singleton, Anthony Mullaly, Carl Ablett and Jack Walker. Youth players Josh Jordan-Roberts, Mikolaj Oledzki and Harry Newman also look set for a run out. This fixture has the potential to be a cracker.
Meanwhile, local rivals Dewsbury Rams and Batley Bulldogs kick off at midday in their Boxing Day fixture. With Batley having won five Boxing Day games against the Rams in a row as well as the Bulldogs thrashing Dewsbury 38-0 in their last fixture, all expectation will be on Matt Diskin’s side as they look to improve on their sixth-placed finish in 2017.
The last fixture of the day sees Bradford Bulls take on Halifax RLFC. After contrasting seasons in 2017 – where the Bulls were demoted to League One whilst Halifax faced the possibility of promotion – Bulls’ new boss John Kear will be wanting to stamp his authority against a Fax side once more hoping for a Championship top four position. Kear is a maverick at pulling the underdog through tough times and Bradford could well surprise Fax if Kear gets his players firing.
Match reports from all the Boxing Day fixtures will feature in the first League Express of 2018, which will be published on New Year’s Day and will be available to digital subscribers on the evening of New Year’s Eve.