The Super League goes back on the road to Newcastle on Saturday as the 11th instalment of the Magic Weekend returns to St James’ Park. But in true rugby league fashion there is already more than one eye being cast on what happens next, rather than perhaps the most unpredictable round of fixtures the event has had since its inception in 2007.
These are interesting times for rugby league. Next month the clubs will sit down and discuss the long-term plans for the Super League and beyond. With a restructure still not being ruled out by the sport’s administrators, the Magic Weekend could, on the face of it at least, face a limited future, despite remaining one of the highlights of the season.
In a domestic calendar that is widely perceived to feature too many games in its current guise, the Magic Weekend appears an obvious place for the RFL to start when it looks to strip back the fixture list. It is, in essence, the bonus round of fixtures in the 23-game regular season – and thus surely easy to cull.
The problem for the sport’s governing body, however, is that the value of the weekend transcends what happens on the field. Its financial worth to host cities – and therefore the asking price the RFL can request of interested parties – makes it impossible to scrap; Newcastle council alone estimates the economic boost the event will provide to the city this weekend to be around £4m.
“Yes, we will be welcoming expressions of interest [for 2018],” the Super League executive director, Roger Draper, says. He hinted this week that cities such as Leeds, Coventry, Liverpool and even London could be potential venues for 2018, and his affirmation that the next venue, which could still be Newcastle, will be given a three-year deal, starting next year, suggests it is very much here to stay.
“Having a three-year arrangement with a review after two allows you to build an event and give you stability, which we all know sports fans love,” he says. As tens of thousands of fans head from the heartlands to the north-east, there will at least be comfort that one of the league’s big events will likely continue: but where will they be travelling to next?
As the RFL ponders what the next move is, you wonder whether it has already found the perfect formula in a city where the numbers simply do not lie. The Super League estimates this weekend will be the third-best attended Magic Weekend and if that proves to be correct, it will mean the three years in Newcastle will rank as the best-performing Magic Weekends so far: and this year’s host city are already open to bringing the event back to arguably its most popular destination again next season.
“If they’re going to do the same format then we’d be really keen to try to host again next year,” the leader of Newcastle council, Nick Forbes, says. “We didn’t think we’d get it for a third year, so it’s a huge achievement to be back here but the feedback we get from fans about being here is brilliant.”
Wakefield and Widnes will kick off the 11th annual Magic Weekend on Saturday afternoon. That game, in which the Vikings could move off the foot of the table for the first time in almost two months, will precede Hull’s game against St Helens – who will have their new coach, Justin Holbrook, watching from the stands for the first time.
Warrington and Wigan close day one of the event before three further games on Sunday. Huddersfield face Catalans, Leigh aim for their first victory since March when they take on Salford and the weekend closes in spectacular fashion when the league leaders, Castleford, face Leeds for the first time since the Tigers’ 66-10 victory against the Rhinos earlier this season.