Map Sports

Challenge Cup....What is the solution?

Many in the world of Rugby League think that the Challenge Cup has lost some of its appeal since the introduction of Super League, with most mentioning its move from early May to September as a key factor. For me, one of the obvious reasons is the large gap between the rounds, where we can have 2 months between games. Further to the public's apathy towards the qualification stages of the tournament, this week we have seen a really exciting tie between Leeds and Leigh, with the Championship side pushing the Super League leaders all the way, with the effects of full time training proving the diference for Leeds. The Cup was alive and well for the previously unbeaten Championship side, as they crossed the Pennines in large numbers to watch their side, but the same can’t be said for the home side with the attendance around the 7000 mark, which is way down on their Super League average. Why is this? Not a glamour tie? Percieved as an easy win for the home side? Screened live on terrestrial TV? Or is the appetite for the cup simply not there anymore? Probably a bit of all of these, but those who decided not to go missed a truly great spectacle with the Championship side nearly producing a famous David v Goliath victory.

Even the true Wembley club, Wigan could only muster just under 9000 for all Super League affair with this seasons surprise packet, the Castleford Tigers. Again live on the BBC, poor weather and an extra cost for the die-hard fans, but with only 2 matches away until Wembley, you would have thought a bigger crowd would have attended what looked a mouth-watering game on paper.

Keighley Cougars even rested players from their quarter-final for their rearranged Championship league match this week. What does this say for the credibility and lustre of the Cup at that level? I’m pretty sure the appetite from the players is still there, to reach and play in a Challenge Cup final still remains one of the great achievements in todays game. I went on several occasions when a youth player at Wigan, as they played and won 8 in a row from 1987 to 1995, and even though I didnt play I look back at those times and those memories are ones I look back at with the greatest pleasure.

Is there a disconnect with the community with the perception that the same teams are involved every year? We have only had 3 different teams win it in the past 8 years and 7 in the past 26 years, and the days of a team outside the Super League, qualifying, let alone winning are basically impossible. With football there is still the romance of a team outside the top flight going all the way.

There is also the concerns of the additional costs associated with the additional games. If supporters want to follow their team the whole way it is 4 -5 extra games and the travel to bear in mind and the wider community are still doing it tough and there is a lot of economic uncertainty around at the moment.

There seems to be an even bigger disconnect between the qualifying rounds and the Final from all aspects of the game, promotion, attendnace, buzz, players attitudes etc. Everyone wants to be involved in the Final but no one wants to go through the process of getting there. One outcome for me is to put the final back to May and maybe our fans will fall back in love with the Challenge Cup.  

One other option, is to remove the Magic Weekend format from Super League, and apply it to the qualifying portion of the Challenge Cup. If the Round of 16 (8 games over 2 days), Quarter Finals (4 games on one day) and Semi Finals (Double Header) matches are played like that the carnival atmosphere will return to the Challenge Cup and value will return to the price of entry for all supporters. If applied to this year we would have seen;

April 27-28 Manchester Stadium

Saturday 27th April
Leigh V Featherstone
Warrington V Doncaster
Wigan V Hunslet
Salford V Widnes

Sunday 28th April

Swinton V Keighley

Castleford V Sheffield
Bradford V Catalans
Leeds V St Helens 

June 14 Bolton Stadium
WIgan V Castleford
WIdnes V Keighley
Leeds V Leigh
Bulls V Wolves

leaving us with the following double header for the Semi Finals

August 10 Manchester Stadium

Castleford V Widnes

Leeds V Warrington

The format above allows for a big ferstival type of approach to the Challenge Cup with fans from different Leagues the opportunity to experience the highest level of competiton in elite facilities. Gate receipts would be evenly shared and it could prove a real boost to lower league sides and give them incentive to reach even the Final 16 or Quarter Final levels. It would be a great opportunity for the RFL to push for a Rugby League day on the BBC with the ability to televise MULTIPLE games as they will all be played at the one venue with great facilites for the broadcaster. It would also allow the RFL to shrink its costs associated with the hiring of multiple venues and the operational costs of running these fixtures (staff, catering etc)

I certainly hope the RFL can come up with something to help rebuild the prestige around the legacy of the Challenge Cup for another 166 years.