League Express editor MARTYN SADLER recommends the matches you should go out of your way to watch in February.
Sunday, February 4th
AB Sundecks 1895 Cup – Group Three
York Knights v Wakefield Trinity
LNER Community Stadium, York (3.00pm)
Wakefield Trinity will make their 1895 Cup debut and play their first official match of their 2024 campaign when they travel to York to be hosted by the Knights.
Under their new coach Daryl Powell, Trinity are confident of winning both the Championship and the 1895 Cup this season and no doubt their 5,000 or more season ticket holders would welcome a trip to Wembley Stadium in June, which would be their first visit there for 45 years.
But first they will have to deal with a determined challenge from the Knights, who will already have played their first Cup game against Newcastle Thunder.
Trinity will have a new squad, whereas the Knights will have a much more settled squad, which will include former Trinity winger Tom Lineham. Their coach Andrew Henderson will be confident he can upset the Trinity applecart, while there will be plenty of attention paid to how many Wakefield supporters travel to the Minster City to support their team.
Thursday, February 15th
Betfred Super League Round 1
Hull FC v Hull KR
MKM Stadium, Hull (8.00pm – live on Sky Sports)
The opening game of the Super League season will be a genuine blockbuster Hull derby, which will hopefully be played in front of a full house at the MKM Stadium, with both sides desperate for victory against their keenest rivals to begin the new season successfully.
The black and whites will be hoping to banish the memory of the last time they entertained the Robins, when they suffered a 40-0 home defeat on Good Friday, with veteran winger Ryan Hall scoring a hat-trick of tries.
Tony Smith was in his first season at the helm last year and he will be under significantly more pressure in 2024 as Hull aim to get back into the play-off positions, although he has lost three key players from last season in Adam Swift, Chris Satae and Jake Clifford.
On the other hand, the Robins have lost three of their overseas stars – Lachlan Coote, Shaun Kenny-Dowall and Kane Linnett – to retirement since last season’s stunning victory, as well as Jordan Abdull to Catalans Dragons.
Whatever the result, the likelihood is that we will see a close game that could go down to the wire.
Friday, February 16th
Harvey Norman All-Stars
Indigenous Australia v New Zealand Māori
Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville (9.10am – live on Sky Sports)
This year’s NRL All Stars match returns to Australia after being played at Rotorua in New Zealand in 2023.
It will be the sixth clash between the Indigenous Aussies and the Maoris, with the victory tally standing at two each with one match drawn in 2021 – the last time the game was played in Townsville.
Last year the Indigenous team just edged a 28-24 victory against their hosts, with Cronulla’s Nicho Hynes winning the Preston Campbell Medal awarded to the player of the match.
The All Stars game usually delivers a feast of open rugby and games that are tightly contested until the final whistle, while they often give some lesser-known players the opportunity to shine on the big stage. That is likely to be true this year as there are unlikely to be any players from Penrith Panthers involved, given their trip to England to face Wigan, while it remains to be seen whether players will be selected from the four clubs that will travel to Las Vegas for the NRL double header in early March.
The Men’s All Stars game will be preceded by the Women’s All Stars clash from the same venue, kicking off at 6.50am GMT.
Friday, February 23rd
Betfred Super League Round 2
London Broncos v Catalans Dragons
Cherry Red Records Stadium, Wimbledon (8.00pm – live on Sky Sports)
London Broncos will be playing their first home game in Super League since the 2019 season, when they battled heroically to avoid relegation right down to the final game of the season.
That year they won their first home game against Wakefield Trinity when they were playing at Ealing RFC’s Trailfinders Stadium, but they suffered a heavy 6-39 home defeat to the Catalans in April that year.
The Broncos already look doomed to spend only one season in Super League in 2024, given their low grading score allocated by IMG, but they have recruited some of the stars of their 2019 campaign back to the club, including James Meadows from Batley and Sadiq Adebiyi from Keighley, and they have pledged to fight for points in every game.
Whether that will be enough remains to be seen, but the Catalans Dragons have also gone through a lot of personnel changes during the close-season and we may find that this game will be closer than many people think.
This game will be one of the earliest matches to feature on the Sky streaming service.
Saturday, February 24th
Betfred World Club Challenge
Wigan Warriors v Penrith Panthers
DW Stadium, Wigan (8.00pm – live on Sky Sports)
Last but certainly not least, this year’s World Club Challenge clash will see Wigan hosting a highly determined Penrith Panthers side, who won the NRL Grand Final in 2023 with a remarkable comeback victory against the Brisbane Broncos. It was their third successive Grand Final victory, but the Panthers have yet to win the World Club Challenge, having lost to Wigan in 1991, Bradford in 2004 and Saints last year.
That contrasts sharply with Wigan’s successes in 1987, 1991, 1994 and 2017.
The game is a sell-out and the Panthers are unlikely to have experienced an atmosphere comparable to the one they will face at the DW Stadium.
Nonetheless, they will be hugely dangerous opponents led by the brilliant Nathan Cleary, who showed in last year’s NRL Grand Final that he is probably the best player in the world.
The Broncos showed last year, however, that the Panthers’ defence could be broken down, particularly with speed and flair, which Wigan have in abundance.
But it will be another remarkable achievement if the Warriors can once again emerge victorious to win the title for the fifth time.
First published in Rugby League World magazine, Issue 493 (February 2024)