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An Easter Weekend to Remember!

Teh Mite

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Northampton

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The sun is shining (cracking the flags, as we say in the north west) and Easter is the latest it possibly can be. Birds are tweeting, the temperature is rising beautifully, and there are 26 men knocking lumps out of each other. Wait, that doesn't sit right does it?

Well, it does with me. Easter is the biggest time of year in Super League. Just as the Christmas period is considered a crucial time of the year in football calendar, so much the same for the rugby league community. Teams that emerge from the Easter period with two wins from two can often be seen making progress in the higher reaches of the table come September. Teams that emerge with zero points can often be seen suffering playoff heartache. That isn't an absolute of course, things can change. Injuries can happen, suspensions maybe, or poor form. Or the reverse of this. Who knows?

All I know is that Easter holidays in Super League are something to be cherished. Let us take a look at the fixtures :

Thursday, 21 April 2011

Bradford v Leeds, 20:00

Friday, 22 April 2011

Hull v Hull K R, 12:15
Crusaders v Huddersfield, 14:00
Harlequins v Catalans Dragons, 14:00
Wigan v St Helens, 14:45
Salford v Warrington, 15:00
Castleford v Wakefield, 19:30

Monday, 25 April 2011
Wakefield v Wigan, 14:00
Hull K R v Harlequins , 14:30
Leeds v Crusaders, 15:00
St Helens v Castleford, 15:00
Warrington v Hull, 15:00
Catalans Dragons v Bradford, 17:30

Tuesday, 26 April 2011

Huddersfield v Salford, 19:00

That's a lot of rugby in anyone's calendar and of course, come next weekend there will be another full calendar of Super League. Three games in the space of ten days at the most, three games in 8 days for Leeds and Castleford, who play on the Friday.

There have been arguments for the Easter period to be streamlined into just one game. It's an argument that holds a lot of water in my opinion. The actual Easter games, Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, should not be touched. There is so much tradition going back so far, those games should be untouchable and generally are. But the bank holiday game is up for debate.

However, the Easter weekend is a crucial time of any team's season, and Leeds and Bradford get us out of the traps with a huge battle at Odsal, or if you must, the Gratton Stadium. Both teams suffered heavy defeats in their last outing, Bradford were put to the sword by some outstanding attack by Salford, and Leeds were beaten at home Huddersfield for the first time since the 1950's last weekend, and that was also a walloping.

Bradford will be out to get their revenge after being on the wrong end of some pretty unfortunate calls in the Millennium Magic meeting back in February and having had some rough times against their biggest rivals lately. Leeds however are reeling after a series of defeats has left them 7 points off the pace and just inside the playoff zone. Indeed, a defeat on Thursday would see Bradford leapfrog them and see the Rhinos face a real race to finish in the top 4.

The Rhinos do have some injuries, but I have seen nothing to suggest that Bradford's defence will be able to handle the away team. Holes materialised all over the show against Salford last weekend and I am surprised by this, as Mick Potter teams are usually sturdy if unspectacular. The former St Helens coach has a lot of work on his plate if there is to be anything for the Bulls from this game. I personally think it will be a close game but Leeds will win by about ten points.

Leeds-Bradford is just an airport in this author's opinion, and the Easter weekend is all about the biggest game of rugby league on Earth, Wigan vs. St Helens. The champions have endured a rough time of it so far in 2011, with good performances sparse and problems off the field, seeing the release of Martin Gleeson. Their coach Michael Maguire is also leaving 2 years through a 3 year contract to return to Australia. The Warriors have struggled to maintain their good form this year and their home record is appalling. They have one or two knocks but otherwise will be at full strength for the ***anic tussle.

St Helens have prospered in the face of adversity this year, without a permanent home, a protracted injury crisis and the Kyle Eastmond saga hanging over the club like a cloud atop Billinge Lump, the on-tour Saints have clocked up 5 wins on the spin and are sitting pretty in 2nd place after a poor start. New coach Royce Simmons seems to be getting his tactics into his players' repertoire and there is a buzz around the team at the moment. There are a lot of injuries for St Helens at the moment, with youngster Lee Gaskell the latest to be hurt after picking up a fractured ankle last weekend, and Chris Flannery is also out with a hamstring injury. James Graham does make it despite suffering a sternum injury.

This game could go either way. Saints have a lot of injuries but are playing well, with confidence and enthusiasm. Wigan have had a lot of problems at home but will be fired up for the biggest game of the season. The temperatures are expected to be high on Good Friday and fitness and conditioning will play a part. Brace yourselves at 2:45pm tomorrow.

Whilst those are the two big games that everyone talks about, there are a series of exciting games on that day. Local derbies have been a tradition of Easter for nearly a hundred years. Apparently, this all stems back to fans not being able to get about as easily on holidays due to bus services being scaled back, so most people walked! Certainly, I wouldn't fancy a walk from St Helens to Wigan, but it is possible!

The early game on Friday is the Hull derby. Both teams are having a poor season, it must be said. Hull KR are without the influential Michael Dobson, who pulls their strings, and big name signing Willie Mason has yet to light the competition up as expected. Hull FC will be boosted by new signing Martin Gleeson, who despite personal demons is wonderfully talented and is expected to make his debut in the white hot Hull derby. FC have performed way below expectations this season and fans are growing impatient with Richard Agar, and a poor result in this game could see the axe fall on his job. Both teams are level on points. This should be a bruising encounter but these are usually close games.

Castleford and Wakefield also contest their derby on Good Friday. Wakefield have improved significantly since their Millennium Magic mauling and will give Castleford a much sterner test this time around. However, the Tigers are flying and are in third place, where not many people would have seen them at Easter. They are playing good attacking rugby and in a time where they are under a lot of pressure because of franchise decisions imminent, look to be showing their worth. I predict a Castleford win.

Another "derby" is Warrington - Salford. In the (now remedied) absence of Widnes, this has become Warrington's Easter game. A trip to the Willows is never an easy task and the Reds will have their tails up after crushing Bradford last Saturday. However, Warrington put a poor run of form to an end with a blitzing win over the Crusaders last week and I predict they'll have too much for Salford.

I don't fancy walking from Huddersfield to Wrexham, and I definitely don't fancy walking from Perpignan to London, as three of the less traditional teams tangle. Huddersfield, top of the league and deservedly so, will travel to Wrexham full of confidence, and I think they'll put the basement outfit away with ease. Being top of the league at Easter doesn't have the same importance that being top at Christmas does in football, but a strong Easter enhances the Giants' chances of being in the top two. There's every chance they could get 4 from 4 this weekend. Sorry Crusaders fans, don't fancy your chances.

The, ahem, derby in London (which the RFL do actually market as a derby) could be a close run thing. In their last outing, Harlequins held red hot Castleford to a 26-26 all draw in a game they ought to have won, stopping their terrible run. The Dragons are on an immense run at the moment, with three wins on the trot including away wins at Wigan and Warrington seeing them ascend to sixth place. I predict an away win, but I wouldn't be one bit surprised to see it go the other way.

An interesting factoid before I go. Lord Derby bestowed the ***le of two sporting events with the official ***le of a "derby." One was the horse race. The other? St Helens vs. Wigan.

Didn't know that? To be fair it's unlikely you did. But what I know is that you'll agree with me when I say that it's going to be an Easter weekend to remember!
 
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