Rugby league has always liked doing things differently and this weekend’s “Rivals Round” showcases some of the very best the sport has to offer.
Six huge televised games over one weekend risks saturation point even for die-hard fans, but gives the players the platform to sparkle on the big stage.
Salford boss Paul Rowley was in-demand this week as the Leigh lad prepared his side to take on his hometown club, who have made some significant noise this year on their return to the big time.
- Betfred Super League: Winless Wakefield Travel To Coachless Castleford
Dates Revealed For Men’s 2023 European Rugby League Championship
- Betfred's Super League Outrights*
Leigh owner Derek Beaumont is a flamboyant, marmite figure but there is little doubt that without their bold moneyman the club would not be in Super League. Having rebranded to the Leopards (complete with Leopard-print kit) and built pop concerts featuring the likes of Scouting For Girls and Carol Decker into their match day experience, Leigh have struck a strong and immediate claim to be a central part of rugby league’s future, currently being “reimagined” by management company IMG.
“I don’t think anybody is surprised,” Salford boss Rowley told The Sportsman this week, of a start the season that has seen the Leopards pick up three wins before Easter to sit alongside the Red Devils, Huddersfield and Grand Finalists Leeds in the early standings.
“This is the best-prepared of any side coming up from the league below, strategically-planned and well recruited, they have a team that is here to stay.
“Show me the guy who said they weren’t going to go well. They are exactly as we expected, a really tough, well-coached outfit and confident as well.”
Rowley played almost 200 times for Leigh and coached the club to back-to-back Championship titles too. He opened up to The Sportsman last year on his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and how he manages that as a professional coach.
Now, over the road at budget-tight Salford, he looks on longingly at the resources from which their fierce local rivals are building.
“I’m envious but as a Leigh lad I’m proud that Leigh have a team that represents the town really well.
“If we had a pot of money to get anywhere near then we are confident we would shake things up.
“You don’t know your rugby if you are looking at Leigh’s squad list and think they are a surprise package. Not a chance. They are a good team and always were a good team.”
Salford’s trip to Leigh is one of the ties of a round that sees heavyweight derbies including Wigan-Saints, the Hull derby and West Yorkshire strugglers Castleford v Wakefield. The quirk of this round of ties for Leigh and Salford is that they only played this fixture seven weeks ago in round one, when a stylish Salford ran out 20-10 winners.
“Back to Leigh again when we have already been there is a little bit strange, a bit bizarre,” says Rowley. “I remember when rugby league was just home and away and a lot simpler.”
But gimmicks like Rivals Round and Magic Weekend are what makes rugby league a trailblazing sport, a game that introduced big-screens and video referees years before we were moaning about VAR.
One of the best games of Easter could actually be one of the more contrived Rivals fixtures, as Warrington make the slightly longer trip to the south of France to play Catalans. These two have been the best sides this season, with Warrington’s one hundred per cent record set for its stiffest possible test in Perpignan. Coaches Steve McNamara and Daryl Powell are two of the finest British bosses around, but both were under pressure amidst under-performing seasons last year.
For Powell especially it has been a remarkable turnaround and a triumph for the club’s hierarchy, who heeded calls for patience to completely rebuild the team under his guidance. Fans who were calling for Powell’s head just a few months into his tenure last season were instead chanting his name with pints aloft when he made a surprise entrance into a nearby pub after last weekend’s thumping win over Hull FC.
This week’s other key story saw legal proceedings formally issued against the Rugby Football League by 100 former players, who are claiming the sport failed to properly protect them from brain injuries while playing. The case mirrors that of over 200 rugby union players pursuing their governing body.
This impending legal case has been the trigger for big changes to the way rugby league is now played, with player welfare at the forefront of a transforming spectacle on the pitch.
It is a divisive issue, with some fans believing former players are now looking to gain financially from a sport whose brutality they keenly embraced while playing, the dangers of which they were fully aware. The group argues otherwise and wants the RFL held to account after some serious diagnoses including dementia and chronic traumatic encephalopathy.
The RFL for its part has expressed sadness at “players’ difficulties” and stressed it remains steadfast in its bid to “improve and develop its approach to concussion, head injury assessment, education, management and prevention across the whole game.”
This is one of the most fiercely debated issues that I can recall as regards player safety and it is almost impossible to take sides when such powerful and tragic human stories accompany it.
I have had some fairly heavy chats about this with two close friends Rob Burrow and Stevie Ward. Rob refuses to link his brutal MND diagnosis to the heavy contacts he took during his career. Stevie though knows for sure that his concussion problems are as a direct result of playing rugby league - because the issues were so bad that he had to retire from the sport in his twenties.
In short it is an incredibly complex issue and one so full of emotion that it is tough to foresee an ideal outcome for anyone involved. The motive has to be right, and providing it is then the world absolutely needs to listen.
*18+ | BeGambleAware