When the NRL announced the inclusion of Magic Round in 2019, it was an overwhelming feeling of excitement, but this year there doesn’t seem to be much magic in the air.
Injuries, minimal fan engagement and an unfavourable draw have given us little to look forward to as Brisbane welcomes all 16 NRL clubs back this weekend after the festival-like occasion was cancelled last year due to COVID-19.
Is it still Magic Round without magicians?
Knights star full-back Kalyn Ponga is the latest big name to be ruled out after suffering a groin injury in the lead up — he joins his playmaker Mitchell Pearce on the sideline.
The Storm will be without big three Cameron Munster, Harry Grant and Brandon Smith, while the Eels will take the field with no Dylan Brown, who is sitting out with suspension.
We won’t see Sharks half-back Shaun Johnson as he’s still at least another week away from returning from a minor hamstring injury — and Titans enforcer David Fifita, who was named on Tuesday, has received a two-match suspension after failing to have his grade-two high tackle charge downgraded at the judiciary.
The other big names who we won’t be seeing magic from are: Ash Taylor, Addin Fonua-Blake, Cameron Murray, Sam Verrills, Zac Lomax, Latrell Mitchell, Joseph Tapine, Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Jordan Rapana, Ryan Sutton, Kurt Capewell, Paul Momirovski, Kotoni Staggs, Jesse Ramien, James Roberts, Jeremy Marshall-King, Josh Jackson and Lachlan Lewis.
However, the NRL is making a conscious effort to keep players on the pitch, ironically by threatening to send off anyone who makes direct contact with an opponent’s head.
The decision comes after a total of 14 players were charged last week — the most on record at the NRL, dating back to 1999 — while the number of players charged for contact with the head or neck was up 700 per cent over the opening six rounds compared with the 2017 season.
Fan engagement not so engaging for clubs
In its inaugural year, Magic Round gave players the opportunity to visit 25 schools and junior rugby league clubs in the week leading up to the event.
Two coaching and refereeing education events were also delivered by current NRL club coaching staff, with more than 100 junior rugby league coaches attending.
COVID-19 is to blame for the lack of fan engagement activities taking place but that doesn’t mean the NRL haven’t tried to improvise.
The NRL was hoping to maximise opportunities for supporters this weekend by conducting joint press conferences in the forecourt of the stadium precinct in front of fans.
In an email sent to club CEOs last week, the league also stated fans would be allowed to submit questions, with the best two or three asked by an MC.
South Sydney have already made their feelings known that they want nothing to do with this new concept, with Wayne Bennett adamant he wouldn’t be participating.
And as the start of Magic Round approached, the league confirmed that they were no longer following through with the initial plan.
A better draw could have sparked more excitement
The biggest game we have to look forward to over the weekend is the final match on Sunday between the Panthers and the Titans, which really isn’t all that exciting for the neutral.
It’s understandable why clubs don’t want to host their home blockbusters and derby matches at Magic Round due to the financial loss but imagine how much more enthusiasm there would be ahead of this weekend if there were blockbuster matches to look forward to.
The fact that the NRL is not bringing any spectacle to the round with any big clashes is only hurting its growth.
The English Super League’s ‘Magic Weekend’, which the NRL based their model off, had a similar debate in the few years after its commencement in 2007, as to how the event can sustain more success.
Considering enhancing fan engagement was not a possibility this year due to COVID-19, adding some big rivalry clashes could have rugby league lovers anticipating its start.
Magic Round Draw
Friday 14th May
Wests Tigers vs Knights, 6pm
Sea Eagles vs Broncos, 8.05pm
Saturday 15th May
Bulldogs vs Raiders, 3pm
Sharks vs Rabbitohs, 5.30pm
Roosters vs Cowboys, 7.45pm
Sunday 16th May
Warriors vs Eels, 1.50pm
Storm vs Dragons, 4.05pm
Titans vs Panthers, 6.25pm