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Magic moments unlikely as concept feels strain of injuries and lopsided draw - but one Super League fix could help

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14th May, 2024
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The annual pilgrimage to Brisbane has become one of the most anticipated weekends of the year for NRL fans.

Eight matches, three days, one stadium and a thousand schooners is still as alluring as ever for the average footyhead and Magic Round remains British rugby league’s greatest gift to Australia since we dropped a pile of Burgesses on the fatal shore over a decade ago.

This year, however, might be the most low-key yet.

It’s not really anyone’s fault, but a confluence of factors have led to an underwhelming round of fixtures that struggle to get the pulse racing and, perhaps, tell us a little something about the NRL in 2024.

Firstly, there’s the injuries. Now, of course, there’s not much that can be done about them and mostly, it’s just bad luck.

There’s a whole masterpiece in there somewhere surrounding the changes in gameplay in 2024 and where that might affect hamstring and soft tissue injuries.

The increase of short sprints brought about by more expansive footy, the higher load on players, the constant scheme to increase fatigue that inevitably leads to, well, more fatigue…we could go on.

The bottom line will be that we’re going to go into a showpiece for all 17 teams – OK, not the Dragons – with an NRL Premiership standard team on the sidelines.

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The draw, too, has done nobody any favours.

When they pulled the names out of the hat prior to kick off, it might have looked like there were some decent match-ups in there.

The Sharks and Roosters played in a final last year, as did the Warriors and Panthers, while Brisbane and Manly are two big draw teams in the headline Friday night spot.

But, ten rounds in, it looks like a disaster.

PlayUp currently have the closest game on the odds as the first, Canberra v Canterbury, hidden away at 6pm on Friday night.

Things only get worse from there with Brisbane getting an 11.5+ start on Manly with the injury to Tom Trbojevic compounding the already horrendous record that has the Sea Eagles with one win in six at Suncorp and one win in four at Magic.

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Saturday has the same trend. The closest game is the Titans v Knights, but the odds lengthen further for the Sharks and Roosters and widen still for the Bunnies v Cowboys.

Daniel Saifiti celebrates during last year's Magic Round at Suncorp Stadium. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

(Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Souths v North Queensland as a Saturday headliner might have been appealing once upon a time given the fanbases of both clubs, but it looks like an absolute stinker now with the Bunnies the worst team in the comp and the Cows on a run of five straight defeats.

Sunday is no better. Penrith have an 11.5+ start on New Zealand, the Storm have the same on Parramatta and the Dolphins 9.5+ on the Tigers.

It might end up as a good week to pick a perfect round in tipping, but even if you chucked in all the favourites together, it’d only be worth $15.

Much like the injuries, this is hard to immediately pin down on the organisers, who couldn’t have predicted the huge fall away in some of the theoretically best teams in the league.

Three of the fixtures are repeats from last year – the Canberra, Manly and Warriors ‘home’ games – so there must be a feeling that those clubs like the set-up, which sees them paid $350,000 to use Magic as one of their home fixtures.

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SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 17: Tom Trbojevic of the Sea Eagles runs the ball during the round two NRL match between Manly Sea Eagles and Sydney Roosters at 4 Pines Park, on March 17, 2024, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Tom Trbojevic. (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Manly, however, are pulling out of that arrangement and will face the Broncos in Brookvale from 2025, while the Raiders are also edging away from it and the Tigers are still undecided on whether they will continue.

The current system preferences sides that are willing to give up a home game to play it at Magic, and thus the games that are thrown up are often the ones that teams wouldn’t want to play at home due to lack of interest.

With the exception of Manly, who were giving up a home game to the Broncos before Magic existed in Australia, one could argue that the only fixture that would get close to selling out anywhere else is the Sharks v Roosters match, which Cronulla understandably move to get a much bigger crowd than they could at the 17,000 capacity in the Shire.

The Wahs might sell out given their ongoing run of packed houses and the visit of the Panthers, but have been happy to switch their game two years running.

Souths and the Tigers both chose to move matches against poor-drawing out of town opponents – the Cowboys and Dolphins respectively – as the Titans with Newcastle, one of the NRL’s smaller market teams.

Like much of Magic Round, there might be a lesson from the UK in there, if the NRL can see it.

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Super League has Magic as a standalone event, with one extra game added to the schedule to ensure that no team loses a home game.

While this isn’t possible in the UK – and, against the wishes of most supporters, they’re scrapping Magic entirely as of next year – the set-up in Super League has allowed for fixtures to be cherry-picked for maximum value.

They have regularly paired Hull and Hull KR as a derby game showpiece to one of the days, ensuring that the fans of the other clubs would stay around to watch that as neutrals, and have done the same with Wigan and St Helens, Castleford and Wakefield and, many moons ago, Leeds and Bradford.

On several occasions, they have streamed the fixtures based on previous league positions to ensure that the best fixtures are pulled out ahead of time.

Imagine if we were going into this with Penrith v Brisbane on Friday night, then Storm v Warriors on Saturday, with Parra playing Souths and the Cowboys facing Manly.

Instantly, you’d get much closer odds, albeit in the case of latter two because absolutely anything could happen in any direction.

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You could then add in a competitive element, with the side that finishes last on the ladder not qualifying for Magic Round rather than simply opting out.

Players and coaches, if asked off the record, will largely say they’re happy to skip Magic Round given the needless faff that playing eight games in three days in one venue brings, the commercial aspect overweighs that.

For fans, it’s great – but it could be so much better. If Magic Round is a festival of footy, it should be the best version of that possible. With a simple tweak, we could right a few of the wrongs of this year’s event.

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