ONE of the few things to lament about rugby league’s decision to switch from a winter sport to a summer sport 20 years ago is the demise of meaningful Boxing Day fixtures.
Games over the festive period in both the round and oval ball games have been pretty much a permanent fixture on the British sporting calendar since the Football League played a round of matches in its inaugural season back in 1888.
Of course, St Stephen’s Day has not seen any competitive rugby league matches in 20 years during the shortened Centenary season – and even then only two were top-flight games played on that Tuesday.
One of those was the traditional showdown between Wigan and St Helens, where the Sky Sports cameras in were attendance to capture the Cherry and Whites running out 58-4 victors against their injury-hit rivals and Scott Quinell grabbing four tries alone.
No less than 16 players were missing for the Saints and even a moment of madness from Neil Cowie could not stop the hosts triumphing in front of a 19,526 crowd at Central Park, with Simon Booth’s try providing scant consolation.
But while Wigan were romping towards being crowned the last winners of the Stones Bitter Championship ahead of the switch to summer and the dawn of Super League, there were two other teams doing battle across the other side of the Pennines.
A bumper crowd of 18,000 were at Headingley to watch Leeds face off with fellow Yorkshire side Castleford, which proved somewhat closer as the hosts secured a 28-16 win, with two tries from Marvin Golden, and one each for Francis Cummins, Jim Fallon and Carl Hall.
Boxing Day fixtures have become a staple at Leeds during the Super League era, with the Rhinos and Wakefield Trinity Wildcats now established as annual opponents on December 26.
A friendly in all but name – the 2016 edition is officially known as the ‘Wetherby Whaler Festive Challenge’ – this and the other matches played over the festive period form part of the preparations for the new season.
But while the start of Super League on February 4 is looming on the horizon, the fact remains it is still closer to the final fixture of the 2015 season – England’s third Test victory over New Zealand – than it is to the start of the next.
Not that these matches are entirely pointless though. Indeed, three years ago these and other pre-season fixtures were used to trial variations to the Laws of the Game, which was also the case in 1998.
Back then, Leeds featured Australian winger Wendell Sailor – over in the UK on a three-month contract with the city’s rugby union team – in their 12-6 win over Halifax.
However, reports from the day state that Sailor had something of a limited impact, with an 18-year-old loose forward going by the name of Kevin Sinfield grabbing the headlines instead for his stand-out performance.
The other game which has remained something of a Boxing Day tradition is the Heavy Woollen Derby between Batley Bulldogs and Dewsbury Rams, which this year takes place at the latter’s Crown Flatt ground.
Two other derby matches take place on December 27, with Widnes Vikings hosting Warrington Wolves and Castleford Tigers going up against Featherstone Rovers.
Then there is the clash between Barrow Raiders and a Barrow & District Select team, which is set to include former Raiders Adam Nicholson and Mike Backhouse alongside the other top amateur players from around Cumbria.
After that, the friendlies do not really get going until midway through January and no doubt the debate will continue as to whether the matches at this time of year serve any purpose aside from keeping alive a somewhat anachronistic rugby league tradition.
Still, it is Christmas, so what harm is there in keeping a little bit of tradition alive?