It’s that time of year again, where all 12 Super League clubs lock horns twice in 48 hours, often against their nearest and not-so-dearest, in an Easter weekend often packed with incident, drama, glory and heartbreak.
It’s the acid test for supporters’ hearts and players’ nerves. Survive this and you’re nailed on to achieve your objectives for the season ahead. Crumble in the midst of the derby atmosphere, the ferocity of the tackle and the intensity of the two-day turnaround and your season is more or less over.
The first chapter of one of Super League’s ‘showpiece’ weekends took place on Thursday night, where Wakefield Trinity took on their West Yorkshire rivals Castleford Tigers at a rain-soaked Belle Vue, with the match descending into a game of ‘stuck in the mud’ just 20 minutes in as the heavens decided to open.
The game then quickly flipped from an exciting contest between two of the competition’s most attacking and exciting sides, both of whom enjoyed excellent, media-defying campaigns last season, to an arm wrestle, with Cas’ weight, strength and strategy in the forward department ensuring they triumphed 11-6 in the end.
This was a big victory for the Tigers, who within the space of a fortnight have gone from a side dubbed a ‘one-season wonder’ after a string of indifferent performances at the season’s inception to contenders for the top four once again.
They seem far more resilient and grittier an opponent this season, with the ability to grind out results in difficult conditions and situations, a characteristic synonymous with champion sides in the Super League era, hence why one cannot dismiss them when discussing the contenders for the competition’s crown in October.
As for Wakefield, a top eight finish remains the key objective for them this season and their excellent start to this campaign, built upon an organised defence and an innovative, pacey attack, suggests they are well on their way to achieving such, although a tough match away to Hull FC on Easter Monday is more than likely to add further damage to Chris Chester’s men’s charge for the Super 8’s. They’ll be fine come the summer.
From Wakey to East Hull now, where the ‘Big City’ derby returned to the Super League after a year’s absence following KR’s relegation in 2016. Behind Saints vs Wigan, this is arguably one of Super League’s most engrossing and intense affairs.
FC entered the game on the back of five straight derby victories but the home side were confident of a triumph against the odds at Craven Park, especially after a sensational performance two weeks ago away to Huddersfield Giants.
Without Danny McGuire and Shaun Lunt, however, Tim Sheens’ chances of masterminding a victory against one of the best teams in the competition were slim at best. Despite a man advantage for seventy minutes, following the sending off of Bureta Faraimo for a late shoulder charge on the host’s Chris Atkin, KR’s woes in the Good Friday derby continued, with tries by Danny Houghton, Talanoa, Jamie Shaul and Jake Connor enough to cancel out a hattrick from the Robins’ Thomas Minns and a good finish by winger Ryan Shaw.
If KR were ever going to end the hoodoo of Good Friday derbies, yesterday was the day they needed to do it. It’s rare in rugby league to have thirteen against twelve for seventy minutes, with the home side’s inability to capitalise against a Hull team with a questionable defence record so far this season an illustration of the fact that without the two injured men mentioned above, the Robins are simply a Championship team punching above their weight.
Hull, on the other hand, are at present a class above their city rivals. They play with greater structure and discipline, have more guile in the centres and on the wing and in Marc Sneyd, Albert Kelly and Jake Connor possess three pivots with the composure and skill required to swing the pendulum of tense matches such as yesterday’s in their favour.
A packed stadium, an electric atmosphere, controversial refereeing decisions and some silky, flowing rugby, especially down the visitor’s left for Shaul’s breathtaking try- it’s good to have the Hull derby back.
Across the Pennines to the Halliwell Jones Stadium we go, where Josh Charnley made his first appearance back in a rugby league jersey following his return from rugby union for Warrington Wolves, who took on their inconsistent rivals Widnes Vikings in a fixture which for all its intensity and aggression has often been devoid of quality and skill.
Against all the odds, Widnes raced into a 10-0 lead but the Primrose and Blue rallied, with Charnley’s double in the second half, both of which were excellent finishes in the far right hand corner, saw the hosts turn the tie into a comfortable 32-18 victory. Warrington appear to finally be getting it right under Steve Price, whose poor start to life in Cheshire led to mass speculation about how much time the Australian was to be given to turn the fortunes around of one of the competition’s supposed ‘big four.’
Their attack is much sharper, more mobile and a lot more cohesive, with the halfback pairing of Tyrone Roberts and Kevin Brown combining well with the Wolves’ pack, who have the pace and power to steamroll any opposition defence. In Josh Charnley they have a try machine, someone with a proven track record of scoring lots of points in big games for both club and country.
With a back five of Ratchford, Charnley, King, Atkins and Lineham, with Matty Russell likely to play a key role too, Warrington have a backline to fear. For Widnes, how much time left does Dennis Betts have?
Financial restraints and salary cap difficulties aside, Widnes have been poor for over 18 months, playing a turgid brand of rugby which has seen them fall from a side on the brink of the top six to one flirting with relegation and Championship rugby again.
Do the Vikings stick with such, in the hope that Betts can turn the team around into the one he first brought to Super League, or do they look for a change, with coaches such as Paul Rowley, Paul Anderson and James Webster available who could provide the spark and style to get more bums on seats at the Stobart Stadium? Over to you Steve O’Connor.
Like Widnes, Huddersfield Giants have struggled in 2018. Bereft of an identity, ideas, form and structure, the club decided to part company with head coach Rick Stone earlier in the week, leaving former player Chris Thorman in temporary charge of rugby league’s oldest club for their clash against Yorkshire rivals and reigning champions Leeds Rhinos at the John Smiths’ Stadium.
Despite surrendering over a ten point lead, with Ash Handley’s try with three minutes to go grabbing a point for the visitors, a 22-22 draw against the most decorated side of the Super League era is a result not to be sniffed at.
There was greater urgency in the Giants’ offensive play, with more options and openings fashioned by the brilliance of Danny Brough and the scheming of Adam O’Brien at hooker but having raced into such a strong lead so early in the contest, Thorman and company are likely to feel like they were on the receiving end of a devastating defeat rather than a spirited draw.
With confidence low and a squad lacking depth and quality, especially in the backs, regardless of who takes the coaching reins, one cannot see Huddersfield’s fortunes changing dramatically between now and the summer, with another scrap to survive on the cards for the 2013 league leaders.
As for Leeds, the best is yet to come. New signings like Richie Myler and Brad Dwyer haven’t gelled as well as Brian McDermott would have liked but the most successful coach of the Super League era won’t be panicking just yet about his side’s inconsistent, indifferent start to Super League XXII. Leeds’ mantra remains the same- Super League’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Last but by no means least came the battle of Billinge Hill at the Totally Wicked Stadium. As a Saints fan, I’ve come to approach Good Friday encounters against the Cherry and Whites with great pessimism in the last decade or so, with Wigan edging us on the previous eight occasions.
Their dominance in that period has been indebted to the work of their pack, whose endeavour and effort has created little pockets through which the likes of Tomkins and Williams can exploit and explore. With arguably our best forward, Alex Walmsley, sat in the stands with a neck injury, the stage was set for another episode of Wigan delight and Saints despair.
But, after a sticky opening twenty minutes where Wigan should have scored on three occasions, we prevailed, with the superstar that is Ben Barba carving the Cherry and Whites apart with a soaring run past the halfway line after a good offload by the impressive Luke Thompson.
“The first part of the Easter Weekend had everything. Triumph against the odds, records broken, fantastic attendances, great tries and an intensity which makes the sport and this weekend of fixtures something else.”
A Zeb Taia try plus impeccable kicking by young Danny Richardson, arguably the most exciting prospect in the game at the minute, put us in control at the break but ill-discipline and a lack of composure in attack allowed Wigan to turn the game on its head and take a 14-12 lead with just ten minutes or so to go.
Both Wigan tries were avoidable. A smart pass inside by George Williams to Joel Tomkins should have been recognised and prevented and Willie Isa’s bundle over from close range could and should have been halted.
In previous seasons, Saints would have crumbled and Wigan would have taken the points. But this is a different Saints and this is a different Wigan. Engineered by Barba once more, with five minutes left on the clock, centre Ryan Morgan made a break which saw Saints move to within twenty metres of the opposition try line.
A quick play the ball was followed by a buzzing run by the bright Tommy Makinson, whose quick offload inside to Jon Wilkin set a home attack in motion. From Wilkin to Lomax, whose superb looping pass took Tom Davies out of the equation and set Regan Grace clear, with the young Welsh winger rolling over from close range to set off scenes of unbridled joy, ecstasy and excitement throughout the terraces.
We’d only gone and done it. The comeback kings are back. A Richardson conversion from the touchline and a smart drop goal sealed the two points and cancelled out a superb late effort by Joel Tomkins in the corner and sealed Saints first victory on Good Friday since 2009. No words can describe the eruption of emotion at Robert Hicks’ full time whistle. Saints victorious 21-18. Magnificent.
In the wider picture, Saints move four points clear at the top of Super League’s summit whereas Wigan remain second. Both teams need to improve in certain areas, with Saints’ attack at times fractured and fragmented and Wigan’s game far too conservative for some fans’ liking but both will be there or thereabouts come the end of the campaign.
But the spoils for this Easter, for the first time in nearly a decade, belong to Justin Holbrook’s men and whilst I try and write with impartiality, balance and respect, I can’t deny that that sentence brings an enormous grin to my face.
The first part of the Easter Weekend had everything. Triumph against the odds, records broken, fantastic attendances, great tries and an intensity which makes the sport and this weekend of fixtures something else. And just as the players’ cuts have began to ease and the fans’ voices have began to come back to life, we do it all over again on Monday for another round of action.
If Chapter Two is anything like Chapter One, we’re in for a treat.