For the first time ever, this season we are set to see the Challenge Cup Final take place in July. After the long-standing May cup finals of the past and the summer-soaked Wembley days of the 2010s, this year marks the first time the final will be played in July.
Last year’s final was of course intended for July but wound up in October – also making history – and in doing so reminded me of the brilliance of the August cup finals of the past.
Why? Because they made winning the double that much harder.
As St Helens take on Castleford in this year’s Challenge Cup Final, both sides will consider winning at Wembley and Old Trafford a real possibility in 2021 because of the time between the two finals. The July date now allows teams to peak early and win the cup tail away in the middle of the season as they recover from the emotional and physical toll of winning at Wembley before peaking again to win the Grand Final at the end of the year.
In many ways its reminiscent of what some teams used to do in the days of the World Club Challenge. Take Leeds in 2008 for example. They started the season on fire as they peaked in time for a meeting with Melbourne in the World Club Challenge before dropping off in summer. Then at the end of the season they peaked again to win the Grand Final. Playing the Challenge Cup Final in July allows teams to do something similar.
Last season it seemed impossible for Leeds to make any sort of impression after winning the cup. Their emotional and physical fatigue were later referenced by coach Richard Agar and no doubt contributed to a difficult night against Catalans in the play-offs.
Go back across the years when Wembley was saved for August and you’ll see how difficult it was to back up afterwards with the Grand Final just six weeks away. The St Helens teams in 2007 and 2008 ran out of steam at Old Trafford, in 2009 Warrington’s play-off bid crumbled as they slipped to 10th whilst 2010 saw the Wolves sacrifice second to St Helens and drop out of the play-offs in week two. Meanwhile, Wigan in 2011 collapsed in a do-or-die encounter against Warrington with top spot up for grabs and failed to find their way back to Old Trafford. 2014 is perhaps the best example as the Rhinos imploded dropping from the top two all the way to sixth losing every game between Wembley and the end of their season. Furthermore, Hull ran out of steam in 2016 and 2017 as did Warrington in 2019.
It makes the few times teams have won at Old Trafford after Wembley triumphs remarkable. A very good Wigan team won the double in 2013 thanks to their ability to win the cup without peaking whilst Leeds’ treble winning team showed other-worldly emotional strength to over-turn the poor run of form induced by a Wembley win to claim the other two trophies on offer.
In those days doing the double or treble was a major achievement, one not likely to be repeated in the near future. Perhaps that’s why St Helens, although proficient in Super League, have failed to do the double in recent years which added intrigue to their semi-final this weekend.
The August date always gave other teams a chance of winning silverware. Gone were the days of one team winning everything. The difficulty of winning both meant the trophies were shared out and when a team did claim both it ensured that team would never be forgotten.
But now with months between the Challenge Cup Final and Grand Final I fear it’ll become too easy to win the double. It will no longer be the achievement it once was. Moreover, it might see less teams win silverware as teams dominate again and again in both competitions.