The best thing about Easter from a Rugby League fan’s point of view is the plethora of games that get put on his metaphorical plate for him to metaphorically devour. Of course, these games aren’t always the tastiest of morsels, but this year the three televised derbies delivered big time, leaving a very pleasant aftertaste. They also went a long way to establishing the hierarchy that this season is going to take, and even at this early stage it seems like that this Good Friday could prove to be a turning point for many sides.
The St Helens-Wigan game was excellent, the exact sort of derby between these two sides that I’ve missed over the last few years, with brutal defence from both sides, some nicely taken tries, and a slight element of controversy (I was suspicious of Ainscough’s second try, although I could understand why it was given). In the end the thing that won it for Saints was their absolutely heroic goal-line defence, combined with Wigan’s seeming lack of cutting edge. Also important was the sheer self-confidence that Saints exuded during the game, a product of years of competing at the top end of the table. This current Wigan side just doesn’t have that experience of winning top level games at the minute, but that might come with time. If this Wigan side can compete at that level (and possibly raise their game slightly higher) consistently for the course of this season, then they should comfortably make the playoffs (of course, the consistency thing is far from in place there at the minute, but there’s still time). As for Saints, the biggest thing they can take out of the game was winning their second tough game in a row without Sean Long. At this stage they are clearly the best side in Super League and it will be interesting to see if they can keep it going through to October.
The Hull derby also delivered big time, with the result in doubt until the final minute, and essentially coming down to two missed conversions from Danny Tickle. Tom Briscoe’s try for FC was possibly the try of the season so far, but it wasn’t enough to stop a KR side who won the forward battle in the middle and frustrated the Hull FC backs on a consistent basis. The Robins’ ability to tough out games this season is a massive bonus that it going to hod them in good stead towards the back end of the season. As for Hull FC, they seem far too tentative at the minute, and it was really noticeable how the home fans were outsung by the away fans. It’s as if everybody is far too nervous and tense in the west part of Hull, and you suspect that when they learn to relax again they’ll start playing with a little more form.
The final televised game was the West Yorkshire derby, which wasn’t as entertaining but nonetheless did manage to manufacture some drama towards the end. This was a fairly dour, attritional game for the most part which I suspect was a result of the conditions, because I doubt that was Leeds’ gameplan. In the end it took a moment of inspiration from Ricky Sheriffe, to not only make a searing break from his own half but also to finish the move off in the corner a few tackles later, to win the game for the Bulls – a result few were expecting. This was a fantastic rebound from the Bulls after their disastrous Cup game in France, and completely went against the form book both for this season and for their recent encounters against the Rhinos. The will surely be hoping that this kick-starts their season after a poor campaign so far. As for the Rhinos, this has been a poor last month or so for them, and they need to get out of this slump fast. They appear to have lost their cutting edge completely and re-finding it will be imperative if they want that third consecutive title.
Of course, it was good for the viewer that all three games were so close, and so were most of the other games at the weekend. Salford won their second straight game by two points against Warrington, and Catalan Dragons enjoyed a trip to London to roll out 28-24 winners against Harlequins. With only Wakefield and Huddersfield striking it particularly big (against Castleford and Celtic Crusaders respectively) it proved to be a very entertaining round of rugby. Will the players be able to back that up on Monday? We’ll see…