Pre-season friendlies: What’s the point?

Welcome back to From The Terraces, the (from now) weekly column where I choose a hot topic within the rugby league community, and discuss my opinions. This week, I take a look at pre-season friendlies and whether they are useful.

As pre-season comes around each year, I don’t think there is a fan out there that gets excited about their fixtures. Even in the cases of Hull FC and Hull KR who play each other each New Year week, both teams don’t or can’t field a first team, therefore it is not a true reflection of their clubs. Usually in pre-season you just get a chance to see a lot of your reserve and academy players, which is great for those who don’t get the chance to watch them during the year.

However, pre-season is surely the time to give your first team players some match practice and improve their match fitness before the real season begins. But it seems like they maybe get around 40 minutes in a game, then on will come the younger lads. Again, I understand it’s a great chance to give the youth players some experience against some decent opposition, but at the same time, your first team players are going into the season still lacking a bit of match fitness. You can train all you want and play training matches against each other, nothing will prepare you for a competitive match, more than playing in a competitive match.

I guess an argument against giving the first team players much game time, is the worry from the coaches that players will get hurt before the real season begins. A great example is Matty Smith of St Helens. In a friendly against Widnes last week, he broke his leg, and will now miss a considerable amount for the season, because of an injury he suffered during a friendly. You can imagine the fans being so upset to the point of questioning Cunningham about giving first team players so much game time in a friendly, when they can get hurt for nothing but match fitness.

You look at football, they have a real high quality lengthy pre-seasons. I support Liverpool, so I will use them as an example. Before the beginning of this season, Liverpool competed in nine pre-season friendlies. During these games, they played their first team in all of them, mixed with several youth players who made up the numbers for those players away at the EURO’s. If you compare that to my club, Wigan Warriors, it’s completely the opposite. They played four pre-season games, however, two of them was a Wigan Select XIII side, which was basically made up of academy players. Not one first team player competed in those two matches. So, in theory the first team players have played two friendlies, against Leigh and Catalans. During both, not one first team player, played the full 80 minutes. How can your players get to match fitness when you’re just playing a couple of friendlies a week apart, and only giving them half a game?

Now, granted, there are more football teams around the world than rugby, I get that. But even the lower league and non-league football sides play numerous pre-season games. It just makes no sense to me, are the players gaining anything from playing 40 minutes in a couple of games a week apart? The season starts in just two weeks’ time, and with no more friendlies to come after this weekend, they have two weeks of training to do and that is it. They’re then considered ready for the season. In a game that is so demanding, physically. Surely the players need more to prepare them for that first game of the season.

Rugby League is a game that demands so much from the players, whether that is mentality or physically. If a player hasn’t warmed up enough, they could get hurt in that first tackle of the game. Last season we saw so many injuries early in the season, it makes you think, have the players gained enough match fitness prior to the start of the season? Now, injuries can occur at any time, that’s true. But when there are multiple teams losing multiple players so early in the season, there is obviously something not right.

Each season, teams struggle to get going early on, then hit a bit of form after five games or so. Then the coach will come out and say that they’ve been struggling for match fitness, but they’re getting there now. For me, they need to have a longer pre-season schedule. Get the players back in earlier and have more friendlies, where you can gradually give the first team players more match time, as the games go on and come the first game of the season, they’re ready to go.

This concludes the second edition of From The Terraces. Please feel free to let me know your thoughts on your team’s pre-season schedule, or just how the pre-season works in general.