On Saturday 25th August 2018 the oldest, most famous rugby league competition in the world entered a new chapter, being won by a team that isn’t from Britain, but while a lot of people embraced this historic achievement by Catalans Dragons, in front of a crowd of just over 50,000, there were also a lot of people claiming that the Challenge Cup has lost its magic, some calling it a Mickey Mouse Trophy and, all the while, everybody wondering what new structure the Betfred Super League will take next year because, apparently, that’s the most prestigious prize to win in the sport here!
Frankly, what a load of rubbish, seeing the Challenge Cup called a Mickey Mouse Trophy on social media I thought to myself, that’s just an absolute insult to the competition which is absolutely unwarranted, you try telling that to the Catalans Dragons players, even more, try telling it to the Warrington Wolves players who have now suffered the pain of defeat on the biggest stage of all twice in three seasons!
However the Challenge Cup does need a bit of a revamp, to put it back in its rightful place of the hearts and minds of all rugby league players, coaches and supporters, but how do we manage that in this day of supporters wishing for a Grand Final victory rather than the cup final?
It’s no secret that Super League, in the case of most clubs, want to ditch the totally unnecessary Super 8s concept, that has to be the springboard to start restructuring the Challenge Cup, because what it does is give us an extra seven weeks to play with! In my recent interview with Hull KR chairman Neil Hudgell, he stated that the concept was broken, the fans and the broadcaster don’t like it and crowds are suffering as a result and he’s not wrong!
So yes, ditch the Super 8s, have 23 regular rounds including Magic Weekend, then have the Top 4 at the end of that playing the elimination semi-finals, before moving on to the Grand Final.
With the extra seven weeks you gain just from that you structure the Challenge Cup thus, with maybe two or three weeks between rounds of the cup, for the first two rounds let’s have lower league clubs and amateur teams then, like the FA Cup in football, bring in the Championship and Super League clubs in the 3rd round, with no exceptions!
In one move you have suddenly reintroduced the magic of the possibilities of amateur sides playing against Super League opposition, with possibilities of, for instance, Wigan St. Patricks playing Wigan Warriors, Castleford Lock Lane playing Castleford Tigers or West Hull playing Hull FC among many other potential romantic ties!
And before you go thinking “what if amateur teams are drawn at home, but can’t accommodate the sort of crowds they would be sure to attract”, then give them the use of the home team facilities at the professional sides ground, giving them a glimpse of what they’re all aiming for, a deal with a top flight club!
The current seeding system isn’t fair and cuts off the chances of amateur and lower league clubs, potentially benefiting from a cup run and money-spinning game against some of the biggest names in rugby league, it has in essence taken away the heart and soul of the Challenge Cup competition!
The other part of the Challenge Cup problems that we hear most about is the timing of it and the final, with some suggesting a move back to a May Bank Holiday weekend final being the better idea, again this is absolutely the wrong idea!
Yes, the August Bank Holiday is an expensive time to take a trip to Wembley and I still haven’t recovered from the shock of the price hike in tickets when going to see my beloved Hull FC there in 2016 and 2017, but let’s not forget, Wembley would be every bit as expensive at May Bank Holiday as it is in August.
The reason the Challenge Cup Final was moved in the first place was because it had essentially become something of a pre-season competition, the larger sides like Wigan and St. Helens would simply make the Challenge Cup their priority at first, take a few Super League defeats on the chin, have a money making trip to Wembley, then drag themselves back up the table when they needed to once it was out of the way.
Personally I would move the Challenge Cup Final away from a Bank Holiday Weekend, neither Magic Weekend nor the Grand Final are played on a Bank Holiday and nobody bemoans that.
I would actually say move it back, put it in September a week before the elimination semi-finals, two weeks before the Grand Final, this would then ensure cheaper travel and hotel prices for traveling fans and maximum media exposure for the sport at the very business end of the season.
I do expect plenty of people to disagree with me, hey I’m only one opinion, but I believe this would bring back the magic of the Challenge Cup and make the game more competitive and, therefore give it the billing and attract the crowds, this historic competition truly deserves!