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A weekend that shows the Challenge Cup has lost its spark…

Oldham have progressed to round four of the Challenge Cup after beating Barrow Raiders.

The Challenge Cup is the most historic and prestigious competition in our brilliant sport but have the semi-finals this season shown that it’s a competition losing its spark?

The ‘Magic of the Cup’ is a term coined across both football and rugby league but it is fast becoming questionable rather than the definitive statement that it used to be.

Football in particular is seeing a sharp decline in its spark with the FA set to scrap replays from 2025 onwards, a decision that has proven hugely unpopular with fans and lower league clubs as it eliminates the chance of both paydays and upsets at the biggest and best stadiums.

Replays aren’t a thing in the Challenge Cup but in it’s current format the possibility for upsets is incredibly limited with just four teams outside of Super League able to make the round of 16, something that severely limits the number of chances for a ‘Cupset’.

However, has this semi-final weekend in particular highlighted just how far the Challenge Cup has fallen down the pecking order?

What’s happened to the magic of the Challenge Cup?

Challenge Cup

Credit: Imago Images

The semi-final stage of any competition should always have competitive fixtures, something that 2023 certainly had with two epic matches on show. However, fast forward one season and there have been two 30+ point hammerings with the heavy favourites advancing to Wembley.

Wigan’s 38-6 win over Hull KR was one-upped by Warrington who tore Huddersfield apart with a 46-10 victory. That means that 2024 marks the first edition of the Challenge Cup in the 21st century where both semi-finals were total walkovers (wins of 30 points or more).

That’s only happened on eight occasions in the past 24 seasons highlighting just how concerning this year’s one-sided clashes have been.

Another issue that points to the declining Magic of the Cup would be the sub-par attendances at each semi-final. Yesterday’s game saw just 11,193 turn out at the Eco-Power Stadium in Doncaster, but that was almost 2,000 stronger than today’s attendance of 9,253.

If the Challenge Cup were as ‘magic’ as we’d like to believe then surely semi-finals wouldn’t be averaging crowds of just over 10,000? Of course, money doesn’t grow on trees and cup tickets aren’t included in season ticket prices but it remains a worrying factor.

Scheduling stupidity takes eyes away from brilliant performance

Challenge Cup

Credit: Imago Images

Whilst it wasn’t a blockbuster game in terms of back-and-forth quality, Warrington Wolves still put on a show as they ran in eight tries but there will have been plenty of fans that didn’t see them. Not because the game wasn’t televised or promoted, it was primetime BBC on a Sunday afternoon.

The problem was that it was the same Sunday afternoon that the Premier League concluded its season. Not only was the game slated for the same afternoon but it had a near identical kick-off time.

With football being the number one sport in this country and the Premier League itself being the most commercially profitable domestic football competition in the world, picking out your Cup semi-final to compete with it shows a clear disrespect for your own product.

Saturday’s fixture saw Hull KR and Wigan kick off at 1.45 pm, yet Warrington and Huddersfield didn’t kick off until 3.45 pm. Any common sense would have those two kick-off times reversed, but such is the lack of care for the sport’s oldest competition.

How can the Challenge Cup be saved?

Wakefield Trinity player Isaiah Vagana in action with Featherstone Rovers' Gadwin Springer. They are covered in mud from head to toe.

Credit: Imago Images

There are plenty of easy fixes to salvage the magic of the Cup. One of the easiest this weekend would simply be to avoid clashing with the Premier League title race by kicking off two hours earlier. That clearly wouldn’t impact the on-field product and would have a marginal impact on attendance, but viewing figures would surely rise.

Another fix would be to scrap neutral venues. An attendance of 9,253 for a Cup semi-final is poor. Had that game been at Warrington Wolves, they’d have likely put at least 10,000 in there themselves.

A final fix has to be reworking how the schedule is drawn out to ensure that there is the possibility for an upset. Super League teams are far too protected with three wins all it takes to book a trip to Wembley. Meanwhile, only four teams from outside of Super League can even hope to draw one of those huge sides and reignite a rivalry.

There was a reason why Wakefield Trinity hadn’t played Featherstone Rovers for almost three decades before their meeting this season, Trinity had been protected with Super League status and had entered later in the competition.

Instead this season as they both entered together we got a game for the ages with a golden point thriller that the underdogs won. That was proof that the Magic of the Cup still exists, but this weekend’s games have been a stark reminder that it is a dwindling entity.

3 Comments

3 Comments

  1. Ged Unsworth

    May 20, 2024 at 12:01 am

    The cups magic was playing at Wembley. Wembley is now a sterile concrete box. It has no atmosphere and no history.
    Despite attempts to link it to the old stadium it’s not the place where England won the world cup. It’s not the place where fox missed the goal or utd won the European cup. It’s an FA stadium that is seldom full because the upper tier if almost always empty. The royal box doesn’t have the mountain of stairs to reach the pinnacle and claim the prize. Old Wembley had magic turf that sapped the legs of megastars.
    Add to it that the players were locals. We wanted to see people we knew, or knew of, out on that renowned turf in that cauldron of sporting greatness. The cup wasn’t the prize. Wembley was. The chance for our town to appear at the nation’s stadium, was.

  2. Brendan O'Neill

    May 20, 2024 at 9:00 pm

    Further to the previous comment, if a semi was to be held at one teams ground then the “away team” should be treated as the “home team” (shirt preference, changing rooms etc) this would help to remove some of the favouritism’s of a home venue.
    Only Huddersfield would have had a lower attendance, for a home semi, out of the 4 semi finalists! The other 3 regularly have larger crowds.
    Waiting an hour between the 2 matches is far too long. The game’s should be scheduled 30 mins apart at the most.
    £30 for a neutrals ticket is a bit steep.
    But by far the biggest issue is publicity!!
    I live in St Helens & work in Warrington but I never saw any promotion of the game anywhere! It seems that the “powers” don’t believe in publicity any more.
    It people aren’t told about the event, how do you expect them to turn up!
    I go to Wembley every year and the lack of publicity & promotion is unbelievable. Failure to promote is a promotion of failure.

  3. Timothy Brabbs

    May 21, 2024 at 9:38 pm

    To Sam Cook ,why do you think the RLFC allowed the early publicity that Rivers v Wigan was sold out – first heard wed before,to go unchallenged? 15,oo o & sold out was info on my phone.Symptomatic of years of poor leadership that has always been RFL issue.Rugby league should concentrate on developing heartlands of Keighley and Bradford, Featherstone etc.abd forget London and France where it’ll never ever get a return.

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