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The magic of Murrayfield

Wigan fans celebrate their team's win over St Helens
Wigan fans celebrate their team's win over St Helens

By George Riley
BBC Radio 5 Live rugby league expert

Depending on who you listen to, Super League's Magic Weekend is either another Rugby Football League masterstroke which maintains excitement levels in our blossoming sport or one gimmick too far in sapping the energy reserves of the professional athletes we already push to the limit.

St Helens forward Jon Wilkin said the process of moving a round of fixtures miles away from the game's traditional heartland is a bit of a pain for the players and makes preparations unnecessarily difficult for what is essentially just "a normal game".

Wilko's a top lad and will no doubt feel vindicated after his side's shock humbling by arch-rivals Wigan. St Helens to Edinburgh and back is a long, long way to go to be humiliated in a local derby.

However, I left Murrayfield on Sunday night firmly in the other camp. Seven games over two days in one venue made my working weekend one of extreme travelling, tiredness, and excessively long hours, but it was one of the best weekends I have had in my life.

We have really enjoyed the experience and being together as a team has helped us immensely after a torrid month

Leeds coach Brian McClennan on the Magic Weekend

Then again, I'm a fan and a journalist who gets paid to watch the game. I'm not a player like Wilkin who puts his body on the line and would rather not have to travel several hundred miles to do so unless it's a cup final.

Saints play the big occasion at least once a season, so it's understandable that they may regard this regular-round relocation as an unnecessary and unwelcome distraction.

I asked Leeds players - like Saints, regular visitors to the showpiece rugby league occasions - and other Super League clubs if they have similar opposition to the RFL's bid to expand the sport.

"I think Magic is fantastic," Rhinos coach Brian McClennan told me after a bruising win over the Catalans Dragons that was accomplished without Danny McGuire in the starting line-up.

"Bluey" told me afterwards that Danny, on the bench for the game against the Dragons, is really struggling with a flare-up of his old shin splints and the club are very, very concerned about his fitness for the rest of the season. A major worry for an otherwise revitalised Rhinos side after a torrid run of defeats.

Paul Sykes gets a hug from Terry Newton after one of his three tries
Paul Sykes gets a hug from Terry Newton after one of his three tries

"We have really enjoyed the experience and being together as a team has helped us immensely after a torrid month," said McClennan.

"It's been the kind of good bonding experience in our hotel that can really help mould a champion side.

"From the band leading us in to seeing all 14 clubs' fans mingling and having fun. it is absolutely fantastic and gets a big thumbs-up from the Rhinos to the RFL. It's a great concept and we have to keep it going."

McClennan also believes that any player or coach moaning about the hassle of such a weekend needs to see the bigger picture.

"You can't think about yourself all the time, you have to think about other people," he says. "This event is for the fans, not us, so as far as the Rhinos are concerned we realise it is good for rugby league, so you won't find us moaning or dwelling on what matters to us."

There is little doubt the RFL will keep it going, but the choice of venue is open to debate. Several fans I spoke to believe the atmosphere generated at Cardiff's Millennium Stadium was lacking at a Murrayfield venue that cannot boast the same city centre location.

I reckon it's better than Cardiff... it is a great stadium, better weather and an unrivalled atmosphere

Huddersfield's Michael Korkidas

"This was my first game at Murrayfield and I absolutely loved it," said Jamie Jones-Buchanan.

"I love it when we turn up and the coach gets bombarded with chants of 'we all hate Leeds'. That really fires the boys up and, after that performance against the Dragons, I reckon we will see some real magic from the Rhinos for the rest of the season."

The RFL will stage the Magic Weekend in Edinburgh again next year. There is the option for a third trip to the Scottish capital in 2011, but this, I understand, will depend on feedback from fans - a process of electronic surveys which is already under way.

It will also hinge on interest from other cities to stage the event. The RFL are already talking to several potential rival hosts.

Bradford Bulls centre Paul Sykes was one man to thrive on the big occasion, running in a hat-trick in their impressive win over Wakefield. He, for one, hopes the event stays in Scotland.

"It's not at all a pain to come here," he says. "It's great to play in front of such a big crowd and get rugby league up to Scotland. I hope we can expand the game there."

A Leeds fan dances a jig of delight at Murrayfield
A Leeds fan dances a jig of delight at Murrayfield

Wakefield captain Jason Demetriou agrees. "It's an awesome occasion. Ours is a family sport and I hope the RFL will build on this success," he says.

Huddersfield's monster prop Michael Korkidas is also in the Murrayfield camp. "I reckon it's better than Cardiff," he told me, dripping with sweat in the Scottish sunshine after a thumping victory over the winless Celtic Crusaders. "It is a great stadium, better weather and an unrivalled atmosphere."

The weather did cause some minor problems, however. Not least a sunburnt forehead for yours truly while competing in the curtain-raising tag tournament.

Our media team proved a real triumph for consistency. Played three, lost three. However, turning 70 this year, commentary box legend Ray French proved he still has magic in the old hands with a crowd-pleasing cameo.

Inside the stadium big Eorl Crabtree came off so dehydrated he had an embarrassingly long rendezvous with doping control in the Murrayfield tunnel as he struggled to muster a sample!

And another giant forward Danny Ward was so tired at the end of Quins win over Salford, he attempted a drop goal that almost ended coach Brian McDermott's career. "I'd have retired if Wardy had made that," big Mac told me after.

Ward himself was gutted with the failure. "I panicked, mate," he admitted. "I had the ball on the last, was shattered, so the dumb prop went for a drop! I nailed one before for Leeds, so that's ruined my 100% record and I'm devastated!"


Castleford coach Terry Matterson and Salford boss Shaun McRae were both too furious with the performance of the referee in their respective defeats to give me a level-headed assessment of the success or otherwise of Murrayfield Magic.

I was on the touchline doing TV interviews when McRae angrily approached ref Gareth Hewer about some of his calls, while Matterson was equally unhappy with Phil Bentham's performance in his side's defeat to Hull FC.

Hull coach Richard Agar is good mates with Matterson and reckons Terry will get his own back on the squash court this week.

Opponents of the event will point to an aggregate crowd of just under 60,000 over the two days at Murrayfield, down on last year's Millenium Stadium weekend. Perhaps a more telling statistic, though, when assessing its future is that the 2009 crowd was well up on the turnout for the first year in Cardiff in 2007.

Agar reckons "the concept has merit and Edinburgh has been very receptive to the idea, but we need to give it time".

For some, like Giants coach Nathan Brown, this was a first ever taste of the Magic concept. Browny told me the event is "exciting and would be a great success back in Australia".

An Aussie applauding Super League for stealing a march on the NRL is arguably the biggest pat on the back you could give to the RFL.

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see also
RFL delighted with Magic weekend
05 May 09 |  Rugby League
Catalans Dragons 16-36 Leeds
03 May 09 |  Rugby League
Salford 16-24 Harlequins RL
02 May 09 |  Rugby League
Wigan 38-18 St Helens
02 May 09 |  Rugby League
Huddersfield 40-16 Crusaders
03 May 09 |  Rugby League
Wakefield 16-32 Bradford
02 May 09 |  Rugby League
Hull 24-16 Castleford
03 May 09 |  Rugby League
Warrington 28-36 Hull KR
03 May 09 |  Rugby League

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