(Note to regular blog readers, this is an article written for a North East newspaper this week so is more of a general preview for Magic Weekend – the regular Wigan preview will follow this week)
What is Magic Weekend?
All 12 Super League teams descend on a city for one weekend a year, to take part in a regular Super League round. This year, is the third and rumoured final year in which Newcastle will be hosting Magic Weekend before moving to the next city, probably Coventry. The past ten years have taken the weekend from Cardiff, Edinburgh, Manchester and currently to Newcastle.
This year’s fixtures are: Widnes v Wakefield, Hull FC v St Helens, Wigan v Warrington, Catalans v Huddersfield, Leigh v Salford, Leeds v Castleford. These fixtures are the equivalent of the Premier Leagues suggested 39th game, in which the game counts as neither a home or away game for any of the sides, it is simply a third regular season game between the two sides.
This year, most clubs, will be playing in a special kit designed for the Magic Weekend, with six teams wearing specially commissioned Marvel jerseys – kits based on Marvel Super Heroes. For example, Warrington will be wearing a Thor kit, Hull FC a Hulk kit and Leeds – Captain America. Other clubs will be using the game, to wear special charity shirts including Widnes who for the third year running will be wearing a Newcastle United inspired kit in aid of the Sir Bobby Robson Foundation.
Magic Weekend is Rugby League’s festival of rugby; it’s the sports opportunity to showcase the best of the sport to a new audience especially in Newcastle over the past three years. There have been some classic games at the Magic Weekend since its inception in 2007.
Two games that are well worth revisiting to get a feel for what Magic Weekend are the Leeds v Bradford game; Bradford were winning 38-36 in the 79th minute until a moment of madness happened …
The second game, is the Hull FC v Hull KR derby from 2012 in Manchester. A last minute David Hodgson try sealing the comeback win for Hull KR…
The Years Games:
14:30 Widnes Vikings v Wakefield Trinity
Widnes have had a turbulent season to say the least, currently bottom of the table and out of the cup after a narrow defeat against Warrington last weekend. Injuries piling up and Middle 8’s almost a certainty, Widnes have turned to the maverick, Rangi Chase to rescue their season. The former Man of Steel was reportedly unwanted by Castleford for the 2018 season and as such, they have allowed him to join Widnes fro the rest of the season in the attempt to earn himself a permanent longterm contract. Chase can be a catalyst to ensure Widnes future remains in Super League despite his off the field antics … Who would put it past Chase to inspire a Widnes victory against Wakefield?
Wakefield currently in sixth place in the league and only one point behind current Super League champions, Wigan. Some great wins for Wakefield so far this season, including their victory against Catalan Dragons in France and you would expect them to have too much for Widnes in the first game of the Magic Weekend. On paper, Wakefield have too many good players for Widnes’ young squad – the likes of Fifita, Jones-Bishop and Grix have the ability to take the game away from the Vikings.
Widnes will be playing a special Sir Bobby Robson Foundation kit and Wakefield will be playing in a limited edition, Marvel Spiderman kit
Player to Watch: David Fifita – The Australian, brother of Andrew Fifita, Kangaroo international, is a man mountain and with 43 tackle busts so far this season, the most in the Wildcats squad, he is certainly difficult to be tackled.
Score Prediction: Widnes Vikings 12 v 24 Wakefield Trinity
16:45 Hull FC v St Helens
Hull FC, the current Challenge Cup holders are currently second in the league and haven’t quite hit the heights and standards that they set for themselves in 2016; however the are well positioned to make a real challenge this season. The addition of Albert Kelly from Hull KR has been a shrewd signing for the Arlie Birds and I would expect Kelly to inspire another Hull victory on Saturday.
St Helens are in a bit of a mess, their new coach is on his way from Australia, although he may have had second thoughts after watching the Challenge Cup hammering Castleford inflicted upon them on Saturday. Jon Wilkin, the St Helens captain suggested that Saturday was the lowest point of his St Helens career, likewise Kyle Amor in an interview with the Mirror.
St Helens have former Wigan and England star, Matty Smith playing at half back and he has the ability, on his day, to control a game and influence the game on Saturday in the Saints favour – however he needs a better platform laid down by his forwards. I can’t see past Hull for this game, it’s not an ideal game for Saints to re-start their season with – perhaps next week a St Helens/Wigan derby at St Helens with their new coach in charge is when their season re-starts…
Player to Watch: Albert Kelly – the post-season signing from architects rivals Hull KR has been a revelation and is the best player I have watched against Wigan this season at the DW. He is unpredictable and normally scores breathtaking tries; he is currently 3rd in the Super League try scoring charts with 12 tries so far.
Score Prediction: Hull FC 22 v 16 St Helens
19:00 Wigan Warriors v Warrington Wolves
This game sees a repeat of the 2016 Grand Final, in which Wigan were crowned Super League Champions sees both teams a way off their 2016 heights.
Wigan’s injury-hit 2016 season has been topped by their injuries in 2017, last week they were missing their numbers 1,2,3,4,6,7,10, and 13 from their first choice 13 squad numbers. This week those injuries could be eased by the expected return of England captain Sean O’Loughlin and fellow England international, George Williams – a player highly tipped to be this year’s Steve Prescott Man of Steel. The rumoured early return of New Zealander Thomas Leuluai, four weeks after breaking his jaw, could also be pivotal for the 5th place Warriors.
Warrington are currently 9th in Super League after spending thesis weeks of the season, winless and at the bottom of the table. They have managed to find some form, including a fantastic comeback win against St Helens, their offseason signing of Kevin Brown has resulted in some marmite performances from the player they signed from arch-rivals, the Widnes Vikings. Last week, in the Challenge Cup, Kevin Brown inspired a Warrington victory over Widnes with a hat-trick of tries.
Despite Wigan’s injuries, I expect Wigan to win this game with their star men, Williams, Leuluai, O’Loughlin and McIlorum making Wigan’s playmakers too strong on paper for the Wolves.
Warrington will be playing this game in their Marvel Thor inspired kit, ironically their player, Ashton Sims who looks very much like Thor, is suspended for Saturday’s game
Player to Watch: George Williams – My tip for Man of Steel this year, he is a player that can make something happen from nothing including a breathtaking try at St James park two years ago.
Score Prediction: Wigan 28 – 10 Warrington
13:00 Catalans Dragons v Huddersfield Giants
Sunday starts with 8th place Catalan Dragons facing 10th place Huddersfield Giants. This is a game which sees the improving Giants come up against the suffering Dragons. Catalan were hammered 62-0 against Hull FC last week in the Challenge Cup, whereas Huddersfield had the week off due to being knocked out in Round 5 by Championship side, Swinton Lions.
This could be a crucial game for both teams top 8 aspirations, a defeat for Huddersfield puts them on the brink of another season in the Middle 8’s, whereas a win will give them belief of a Super 8’s finish and put the Dragons under pressure to avoid their first ever Middle 8’s finish.
Catalan Dragons are another side suffering with injuries at the moment and I fancy Huddersfield despite missing their captain, Danny Brough to sneak a win. Their signing of Jake Malmo, who has only recently made his debut in the past month for Huddersfield looks to be a very good signing and I am tipping a Malmo-inspired Giants victory.
Player to Watch: Greg Bird – The ex Australian test player is a real Super League Superstar, capable of changing a game for or against Catalan depending on what mood he is in. A real firecracker to watch!
Score Prediction: Catalan 12 – 16 Huddersfield
15:15 Leigh Centurions v Salford Red Devils
Super League newsboys Leigh Centurions face high-flying Salford Red Devils in Sunday’s second game. Salford having secured their Super League status last season thanks to a Extra Time Golden Point drop goal from Gareth O’Brien; have progressed to be a real top 4 contender in 2017. Their performance this season have been very strong and they look to finally have a team rather than a collection of individuals. The halfback combination of Michael Dobson and Robert Lui steer Salford around the park and have the NRL experience to influence Salford’s success so far this season.
Leigh, after a bright start in their return to Super League, have faltered a little lately. They will be looking to their highly experienced captain, Micky Higham for guidance in their first taste of the Magic Weekend. They have enough young talent in the likes of Hampshire, Pellisier and Crooks to trouble the Red Devils, but Salford are in excellent form at the moment and I can’t see past a big win for the Red Devils.
Player to Watch: Ben Murdoch-Masila – Salford’s number 11 is a handful for defences to stop when he is close to the try line. The Tongan international has been pivotal to Salford’s high league position so far this season.
Score Prediction: Leigh 10 – 38 Salford
17:30 Castleford Tigers v Leeds Rhinos
The final game of this season’s Magic Weekend sees Super League’s equivalent to the Harlem Globetrotters, Castleford Tigers come up against the most successful Super League club since its inception in 1996, Leeds Rhinos. This game see’s 1st place play 3rd place in what should be a great spectacle. Leeds were embarrassed against Castleford in March when they lost 66-10. A result that has inspired Leeds to find some of their old form and return to 3rd in the table after a good run of results.
Castleford’s axis of Roberts, Gale and Hardaker has been unplayable for most of this season so far inspiring their side to score 476 points in the league to date, the second best side, Leeds, have scored 339 points. Castleford also boasts the best defence in the league, having only conceded 214 points compared to the 280 shipped in by Leeds.
Although Castleford have been almost untouchable lately, I do think Leeds’ big game experience will ensure we have a closer game on Sunday that what some might predict. Having said that, I can’t look beyond the class of Cas and expect them to come away victorious on Sunday.
Player to Watch: Luke Gale – England’s current number 7 has been involved in pretty much everything that Castleford have done well this season. A former Leeds Rhino academy player, he normally finds his best form when he comes up against the Rhinos.
Score Prediction: Castleford 24 – 12 Leeds
If you have never experience Rugby League before, Magic Weekend is the perfect venue to sample it at its very best. Fancy dress, plenty of activities inside St James Park and outside to keep the whole family entertained – Rugby League is the perfect family sport, so why not sample it this week in Newcastle.
Tickets are still available at http://www.rugby-league.com/tickets