Deacon offers escape from cabin fever

The Wigan-Saints derby leads the traditional roll call of festive friendlies. Dave Hadfield points out all the tussles worth getting cold for
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The Independent Online

Like taking wrong-sized shirts back to the shop or losing small but vital parts of complicated toys, rugby league friendlies are one of those Boxing Day traditions that refuse to lie down and die.

When the game switched to a summer season 14 years ago, it was widely assumed that Christmas derbies would gradually wither away, like a tree shedding its needles in instalments until there were none left.

But not a bit of it. A quick glance at the holiday fixture list reveals that no less than 20 clubs were due to be in action today and tomorrow – weather permitting. If this is a dying tradition, it is lingering on life support for an unconscionable length of time.

The reasons, as so often, are primarily financial. Christmas falls neatly in the middle of a period during which professional rugby league clubs now have little money coming in.

It is a well-known fact that many people – male and female – have cabin fever after 36 hours with their families, so why not give them an escape route?

People will turn up to watch St Helens against Wigan or Leeds against Wakefield, even though they came away vowing "never again" the last time they paid their money at this time of year and found they were watching the reserves. Besides, if you are desperate enough to get out of the house, there is always a selling point. Wigan at Saints tomorrow, for instance, are due to give a debut to Paul Deacon, finally joining the home-town club that rejected him as a schoolboy, at the age of 30.

It is also Michael Maguire's first match as the latest Wigan coach. As an Australian, he might be bemused by this seasonal dysfunction that sees teams playing at the wrong time of year, but he will welcome the chance to run the rule over some players he is just getting to know.

Likewise Bradford fans at Castleford, who will see several unfamiliar faces for the first time today, along with one half-forgotten one from the recent past.

After the disappointments of last season, the Bulls have rebuilt extensively and three of their new Australians should be on the prowl at The Jungle, with Brett Kearney, Heath L'Estrange and Glenn Hall all making their debuts and Stuart Reardon returning to the fold.

The longest drawn-out transfer saga of last season was Richie Myler's move from Salford to Warrington, and Wolves fans will start to form an opinion from today's game at Widnes on whether he is likely to prove worth it.

This can be a useful time of year for sides like Widnes to test themselves against a higher standard of opposition than their usual. Thus, Ian Millward's first match back in charge of Leigh is against Super League Salford – or at least an approximation to them.

For local significance, there are two of the really traditional derbies; Batley versus Dewsbury today and flood-hit Workington at home to Whitehaven tomorrow. It is no use telling followers of those four clubs that they are participating in a dying ritual.