MORE than 15 years after Gateshead Thunder’s brief existence as a top-flight entity ceased, Super League returns once more to the North-East.
Magic Weekend, the sport’s unique six-match extravaganza, has secured its fourth new location and will, in 2015, be played at Newcastle United’s St James’ Park .
After originating at Cardiff’s Millenium Stadium in 2007 and then, two years later, moving to Edinburgh’s Murrayfield for a couple of seasons ahead of a return to the Welsh capital in 2011, it had found its home in Manchester of late.
Magic Weekend had, indeed, been deemed most successful during the last three years at Etihad Stadium, closer to the game’s traditional support, but its owners Manchester City have building work planned immediately after the culmination of the Premier League season in May so it is unavailable for a fourth successive staging.
Instead, the concept will venture into relatively untapped areas again as it heads to a city renowned perhaps for its fanatical football-mad support more than anything else.
All 12 Super League clubs will, then, play in six matches – three on Saturday, May 30 and three on Sunday, May 31 – at the home of the Magpies which holds more than 52,000 spectators.
It is understood it beat off competition from previous hosts Cardiff and Edinburgh, plus Coventry, to win the rights and so takes elite rugby league back to the region for the first time since 1999.
Back then, Gateshead Thunder – after finishing sixth in their inaugural Super League campaign with Australian Test hooker Kerrod Walters among their ranks – announced it had made large losses and eventually ‘merged’ with Hull Sharks to much consternation from certain parties.
Gateshead reformed the following year to play in the semi-professional lower division ranks but there has been no Super League presence in the North-East since.
Super League general manager Blake Solly believes, however, that Newcastle is the ideal venue for 2015.
“St James’ Park is one of Britain’s iconic sporting stadiums and Newcastle is a fantastic destination city that will provide the perfect backdrop to the First Utility Super League Magic Weekend,” he said.
“From all our engagement with Newcastle United, Newcastle City Council, NE1 and other agencies, it is clear the region will welcome rugby league fans with open arms and I have no doubts that Magic Weekend 2015 will be a huge success.
“We did receive interest in staging Magic Weekend from a number of other venues but none provided as good a fit as Newcastle for many reasons, including its transport links, hotel and accommodation options and opportunities for our fans to enjoy a weekend to remember.”
Sean Bullick, chief executive of NE1 Ltd, the firm that manages Newcastle Business Improvement District, expressed his “delight” too and added: “The economic impact of this will be significant, particularly for the hotels and restaurants, as well as the retailers.
“Similar events such as the 2012 Olympics and Great North Run have generated millions of pounds for the city.
“Large scale events like this do a fantastic job of promoting Newcastle and the wider region.
“I’m sure visiting fans will have a fantastic time in the city and we hope this will be the best Magic Weekend so far.”
Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington believes St James Park’ is a “terrific” venue but wants to see the concept – approaching its ninth season – find increased crowd levels in 2015.
“I think the Etihad has established itself as an ideal venue over the last few years,” he said, with the aggregate attendance of 64,552 this season marginally becoming the biggest so far.
“This year’s event was probably the best we’ve had, the event is growing and it is a great opportunity for the whole rugby league family to come together and show itself in a quality way.
“The players really enjoy it and the fans do as well and the only disappointment is that we really need to get another 20,000 people there over the weekend,” he said.
“Not enough people have attended, quite honestly, but even so it has developed into one of the highlights of the rugby league calendar.”
Details of the actual Magic Weekend fixtures themselves and kick-off times will be confirmed in mid-November.