Tony Nolan is a Hull based Rugby League supporter who takes a particular interest in the structure and organisation of the fixture programme. After the publication of the 2015 fixture lists last week, he examines whether the new season will be fair to the clubs and their spectators…
Although it was only eight days after the Grand Final I’m sure that all supporters optimistically scanned the 2015 fixture lists to see when their team would play their arch-rivals, or if they would be able to manage a weekend trip to France or London to follow their side, or even just when they would be sent to Coventry.
Personally, in the most important season for the sport since 1996, I reviewed the list in the hope that faults and inconsistencies that had blighted the fixtures in recent years had been replaced with a schedule that was transparent and fair to all teams, players and supporters.
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In a season when so much is riding on finishing positions in the league, the RFL could not afford to be seen to favour one team, at the expense of another and put in jeopardy the success of its high-risk restructuring.
So has the RFL succeeding in finally producing a fixture list which is fair and equitable to all, or is anyone behind the eight-ball when it comes to making the Super 8s?
Well, to begin with they have started well. The first round in the Super League, with the obvious exception of Catalan, are all Yorkshire or North West ‘derbies’ which will hopefully encourage supporters to travel at the start of the year. The Championship starts with a bang, with title favourites Leigh and Bradford clashing, whilst in League One Coventry v Oxford is a match expansionists have dreamed about for a long time.
There is one round of Super league fixtures that is open to judgement at the moment.
As they finished outside the top 8 last season, Hull FC, Hull KR, Salford and Wakefield all have to play in the fifth round of the Challenge Cup on the same weekend that Round 11 is scheduled. Interestingly, and I’m sure deliberately, they have been set to play each other. The premise is that these matches will have to rescheduled and played midweek.
As these four teams are already at a disadvantage of entering the Challenge Cup early, the teams, and more importantly the players, are handicapped by having to play a midweek game as part of their extra three league matches next year.
I hope common sense prevails and the RFL allows these two games, both scheduled to be played in Yorkshire, on the weekend of the World Club Challenge. Playing these on the Thursday before or say a Saturday afternoon, should not interfere with the Anglo/Aussie showdowns, which will all be played on the west of the Pennines. In fact Championship games have been scheduled for the same weekend, so why weren’t these two games?
Good news for Hull
Easter is always a time when clubs should have an opportunity to boost attendances over a holiday weekend. However, surprisingly there is no Castleford v Wakefield derby over this period.
But it is in the Championship where the main disparity exists. Sheffield are not at home over Easter at all, whilst Featherstone greatly benefit from two home fixtures.
Good Friday is the launch of the League One season, which should be a big benefit to the teams lucky enough to start at home.
The positive news in East Yorkshire is that, for possibly the first ever time, Hull FC and Hull KR are never at home together on the same weekend. This is good for both the floating fans in the area who don’t have to make a choice when both are at home, and for the clubs, who will not be competing against each other for supporters on the same day.
In contrast to this, Castleford and Wakefield are both at home on four separate weekends and on one of these local rivals Featherstone are also at home. Similarly Warrington and Widnes are also at home together on three different weekends, as are rivals St Helens and Wigan. Better planning to minimise such clashes between local rivals could have boosted the crowds and income of the clubs involved.
Home and away strings
In the past many clubs have suffered financially from having a string of home or away fixtures, which happened to Hull FC and Wigan respectively last season.
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In the Super League next year, apart from Warrington and Widnes, all teams either have a spell of three consecutive home or away matches.
However there are some odd patterns within this. Catalan have three consecutive home matches in February and early March, which may have a negative financial impact for the French club as their opponents’ fans are less likely to travel there at that time of the year.
In contrast, five of Leeds Rhinos’ last six matches are at home. Is this a negative for the club and their fans regarding attendance, or will it be a boost for the club in building momentum prior to the Super 8s?
Lower down the league structure only a few teams are affected by this and it is Halifax who are the losers, with four consecutive away matches and three at home. Similarly Leigh play three matches away from home in a row, whilst Rochdale do this four times.
The scheduling of the Sky fixtures can have a big impact on fans and clubs. Next season, even before the Super 8s, St Helens will feature 14 times, including each of the first five weeks, whilst Leeds are shown 12 times, including six rounds in a row.
This may effect these teams’ revenue if fans choose to watch the games on TV, whilst to the general or armchair fan this may be overkill, compared to only being able to watch Salford three times (and not once after Round 7) and Wakefield just four times. Unfortunately no Championship matches are scheduled to be broadcast, as yet.
However, as we are now in an era where Thursday night Sky matches are the norm, the biggest impact is on those teams who have to back up from a Sunday fixture and play again the Thursday after, against an opponent who played earlier than the Sunday. This disadvantage is felt by St Helens, Salford and Warrington once. However the biggest losers in this are Hull FC, as it happens to them twice, with five of their six Sky fixtures being on a Thursday.
Whilst some of this may be viewed as nit-picking and being critical rather than offering solutions, I know that the fixture list could be a lot fairer.
Magic Weekend & Summer Bash
Once it was obvious that Bradford and London would be relegated I devised a 2015 Super league fixture list which ensured that no local rivals would be at home on the same weekend, that no team would have more than two consecutive home or away fixtures, that no team would have to back up on a Thursday after playing Sunday and that Huddersfield, Hull FC and Wigan would not be at home on the same weekend as their ground sharing football teams. Whilst my proposals were sent to the RFL, I didn’t receive a response.
Therefore, although the 2015 fixture list may have improved slightly compared to previous seasons, it still has many faults and disadvantages certain teams in different ways, when it could have been so much fairer.
However, the overall conclusion on next year’s games can only be made once the Magic Weekend and Summer Bash fixtures are revealed.
With these being the ‘extra’ match, success in this Round could make all the difference between finishing 8th or 9th in the Super League or 4th or 5th in the Championship, which is vital as to which Super 8 section teams qualify for.
Therefore I wait with interest for this fixture announcement.
Will it be ‘local’ derbies to try to boost the crowds? Or will it be a fairer system, if such a thing can be determined, such as 1v2, 3 v4 etc, based on last year’s league positions? Whatever is decided I’m sure there will be fans who think their team has been disadvantaged, whilst others have benefited.
Fairness is the key
Another area which disappointed me was that there was no announcement on the Super 8 fixture format.
Whilst it is a good move to schedule the Challenge Cup semi-final after Round 23, as it gives an extra week to announce the fixtures and allow clubs to plan for the forthcoming matches, I feel that the RFL has missed a trick.
To show that they are fair and transparent when it comes to setting fixtures, a pre-set list could be published, which would be the same each year, based on league positions.
Again I sent such a list to the RFL, which was weighted to give those teams finishing highest up the league easier home matches, so that it would be fair to all. And again I didn’t receive a response.
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I suspect, but I hope that I’m wrong, that once the Super 8 fixtures are published, which would have to be rushed once the top eights are decided, that certain teams will feel aggrieved that they have harder fixtures than a team that finished below them.
Therefore, although I think the situation has improved, I still think the RFL could have done better.
Hopefully they will when the Magic Weekend, Summer Bash and Super 8 fixtures are announced.
I hope they realise that, by making these fixtures fair and equitable to all, they will have a much better chance of making ‘Every Minute Matter’.