Super League set for big weekend at St James’ Park
St James’ Park is poised to witness the pivotal moments of the 2021 Betfred Super League season when the Dacia Magic Weekend makes a belated return to the north east.
The annual two-day event, which began in Cardiff in 2007, was due to return to Newcastle in May 2020 until it became one of the casualties of the coronarivus pandemic.
Re-scheduled for the Spring Bank Holiday weekend in 2021, it was put back again as organisers waited for the return of unlimited crowds and their perseverance is set to be rewarded with an intriguing set of fixtures, which were determined by the final league placings in 2020.
Table-toppers Catalans Dragons, who made history by becoming the first overseas team to win the Challenge Cup in 2018, are effectively 80 minutes away from a maiden Grand Final and they can clinch a first League Leaders’ Shield with victory over defending champions St Helens on Saturday.
The Dragons, who are set to complete all but two of their 25 scheduled league fixtures, suffered only their second defeat at Saints a month ago but that was with a severely under-strength side and coach Steve McNamara believes they would be worthy league leaders, even if that is not the big prize they are aiming for.
“It’s about winning the Grand Final ultimately, that’s what every team is aiming for,” said McNamara, whose side were involved in a relegation decider just four years ago.
“I feel we deserve to be where we are right now based on what we’ve done so far this season.
“Whether we deserve to be league leaders or win a Grand Final will be determined by what we do next.
“We’ve probably got the most difficult game of the season on the biggest occasion so far, particularly for us.”
St Helens’ England prop Alex Walmsley, who is a Magpies fan, says the Catalans are where they deserve to be in the table.
“They’ve probably been the best team throughout the year and we’ll need to be at our very best to give ourselves a chance,” he said.
“Being a Newcastle fan for my sins, it’s always a nice place to go play and I’ve got some great memories from there.
“It’s always a great spectacle for the fans. It’s going to be a tough game but one we’re all looking forward to.”
Saturday’s top-two clash is sandwiched by two fixtures that could go a long way to determining the make-up of the play-offs.
Wigan and Warrington, who meet in the big game on Sunday, have also secured top-four finishes but, with two rounds of the regular season left after the weekend, four clubs are still chasing the two remaining spots.
Leeds, currently fifth, take on a Hull side who dropped from fourth to seventh after winning just one of their last seven games.
Hull coach Brett Hodgson said: “We know we haven’t been at our best for a couple of games now.
“We have to prove it ourselves that we can do what we’ve spoken about for a number of weeks now.
“It’s only been just over a week now since the Hull KR game so it’s not long ago that we performed to the level that we know we can.”
Hodgson’s men effectively need to win all three of their remaining fixtures to clinch a play-off spot and Rhinos coach Richard Agar admits Saturday’s clash is must-win for his side too.
“We don’t like to term games must-win and it’s not all over for the side that doesn’t win but, given our respective league positions so close to the end, it’s almost worth more than two points in the context of the season,” Agar said.
Castleford, who open the Magic Weekend against Salford, saw their four-match winning run come to an end against Wigan on Monday but were consoled by defeats for all three of their play-off rivals.
“Clearly it’s a really important game for us,” said Tigers boss Daryl Powell, who was named Super League coach of the month on the back of his side’s recent upsurge in form.
“We were pretty fortunate last week with the fixtures around us all going in our favour so it’s in our hands.”