RUGBY Football League chief executive Nigel Wood last night revealed he foresees a record-breaking Magic Weekend attendance as the new Engage Super League season gets underway – and the controversial format is set to remain part of the game’s calendar for years to come.
The system whereby all seven fixtures are played at one venue returns to Cardiff for the first time in three years this weekend and in a new position, having moved from May to become the campaign opener.
There is only a 12-month contract in place at the Millennium Stadium after two years at Edinburgh and there have been doubts about the long-term viability of the innovative exercise.
The sport’s television rights expire at the end of the season and are currently up for bidding for 2012 and beyond.
However, Wood believes any broadcaster will see the benefits of the weekend bonanza – which starts with Huddersfield v Warrington at lunchtime and sees Wakefield play Castleford this evening – and encourage its continuation in the future.
“It certainly seems to work for the TV companies,” he told the Yorkshire Post.
“It delivers a high quality broadcast and they appreciate it’s a good event for them.
“The clubs are really positively behind it, the fans are as well, and we spoke to people who said they wanted to return to Cardiff.
“I don’t see any reason why the formula will change in the near future.
“We’ve been really encouraged by the response so far for tickets and one of the issues we’re facing right up to kick-off time is whether we’re going to open parts of the stadium we’d previously decided to keep shut.
“We want to try and beat the highest-ever attendance and while we recognize the circumstances are slightly different – being in February not May – we’ve every prospect of achieving the numbers we’ve previously had in Cardiff and beyond.”
The Magic Weekend enjoyed its highest aggregate crowd of 63,144 in the Welsh capital in 2008, its second year, but that figure fell below 60,000 after moving to Scotland the following May and endured a worrying low of 52,043 last season.
However, the RFL hope new life will be breathed into the concept by moving it to the beginning of the new campaign and, after four months without Super League action, there is a feeling rugby-starved supporters will make the trip.
The governing body are also targeting Wales rugby union fans who will be in Cardiff to watch their country’s Six Nations game.
“It’s going to be very interesting because they are playing in Scotland but we have been told that invariably fans who don’t travel away come into Cardiff anyway to watch the match,” added Wood.
“I think the centre will be buzzing on Saturday, with its usual kaleidoscope of club shirts, and hopefully some of those union fans may decide to come and see a Super League game as well.”
One person who will definitely be there is Hollywood actor Mickey Rourke, who is researching rugby league as he prepares to play Gareth Thomas, the former Wales RU captain now playing for Crusaders – who face Salford City Reds tomorrow – in a biopic about the gay sportsman.
Wood concedes that publicity alone will give the sport a significant boost as it looks to increase its pulling power.
He does not believe the event is likely to be staged at Wembley, as suggested by England captain Jamie Peacock.
“Never say never, but what we need to be mindful about is the Challenge Cup final is at Wembley already,” said Wood.
“We put a blue riband event on there, have the Grand Final at Manchester, and to go to a third city for the sport’s other big event is logical.”
Cardiff’s Millennium Stadium remains favourite to be the long-term venue due to its retractable roof, an asset no other British stadium boasts.
Staging the full round of opening Super League fixtures in February has its obvious benefits as a spectacular way to kick off proceedings but the potentially inclement winter weather does pose problems when there is no cover so it has the nod over all others if the event stays in that time slot.
A decision on whether it remains in February will be made at the end of the current season.
Champions Wigan face St Helens in a repeat of last year’s Grand Final as the climax tonight before Leeds Rhinos and Bradford meet up tomorrow with the Hull derby rounding off the weekend at 4pm on Sunday.
Wood added: “It’s going to be a terrific season as there is a lot of fresh, new players and a lot of pent-up demand ready to watch the sport.
“There’s been a lot of pre-sold tickets but I imagine there will be plenty of day trips as well to watch one particular club and, for those who sit through all seven games, by the end of round one they will have seen every team in action.”