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Magic Weekend: Shorthand for rugby league expansion

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Roar Guru
2nd September, 2021
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This weekend’s round of Super League sees the competition take to Newcastle’s St James’ Park for its annual Magic Weekend.

There are expected to be a number of captivating fixtures, including a top-of-the-table clash between St Helens and Catalans Dragons.

It marks the return of that ‘festival’ of rugby league, after 18 months of pandemic restrictions, bringing together the ‘rugby league family’ and all those other clichés. And with 50-60,000 punters expected to descend upon the northeast, a hefty payday is expected on the back of it.

The concept is now over 14 years old, becoming a fixture of the calendar after its 2007 inception. It has borne duplicate concepts in France’s Elite One Championship and, most notably, in the NRL.

It also acts as a useful shorthand for the thinking of those in charge of the game vis-à-vis priorities and expansion. Is it an aim of those in charge to spread the gospel, grow the game and all the hullabaloo that we expansionists hark on about? That’s what taking it to Cardiff, Edinburgh and Newcastle suggest.

Or are the goals humbler and earthlier – survival and making a bit of cash? Is it just a cash-spinning exercise, monetising the loyalty of nearby, heartland-based fans? That would provide a rationale for putting Magic in Brisbane and Manchester.

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Of course, it could be a mixture of both. Rugby league as a sport has these two notions inherent within its very DNA. After all, it was founded with the split from rugby (union) over peculiar local concerns surrounding financial concerns. But its very existence in Australia, and thus the sport’s greatest league, owes to ‘expansion’ and the missionary work of Albert Baskerville and the All Golds.

In the UK, Magic has gone through the motions of disjointed thinking. After two years in Cardiff, South Wales was awarded a Super League franchise, seeming to validate the work on the ground and initial interest garnered by the event.

And then the event moved to Edinburgh, with no history of rugby league or a local side of any note. A year later, the Welsh franchise moved north to Wrexham before folding in 2011. That the game perseveres in the Principality despite such administrative cackhandedness is nothing short of remarkable.

The most successful iteration of the event has come in Newcastle. There has been genuine local engagement, with a healthy grassroots game quickly catching up to the heartlands. The local club, Newcastle Thunder, were born from the Ashes of a disastrous Gateshead-Hull merger, and have cemented themselves as a solid second-tier competitor. That the city’s first Magic came the same time as the Gateshead side moved to Newcastle not be overlooked.

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The power of Magic to drive expansion and garner greater interest is well known. Which is why it’s a shame that Australia seems intent on pursuing purely monetary goals. Hosting NRL’s Magic Weekend in Brisbane represents institutional conservatism and a lack of wider vision.

This isn’t just about Magic. Such contradictions were on display with the seemingly discarded NRL Nines – first hosted in Perth to much success, before landing in the league hotspot of Auckland. And so it is with the latest round of expansion discussions.

The NRL has the financial might, the public cut-through and national coverage to expand. With Origin, Nines and Magic, they have the perfect tools with which to carpet-bomb new areas with world-class rugby league while providing their very own side.

At the moment, it looks like these events are pure money-making exercises. 2020’s Origin match in Adelaide represented nothing but a fly-in, fly-out pay-day. As much as NRL HQ may appreciate a hefty state government reimbursement, what are rugby league officials meant to do in the aftermath?

Expansion needs to be planned meticulously, and with rational heads abound. No one wants a repeat of the Super League wars. But why Brisbane is being prioritised, when the Broncos can’t even sell out Suncorp, is beyond me.

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