During rugby league’s historic relationship with Wembley Stadium, it has had traditional time slots.
For a long time, rugby league’s oldest and most prestigious trophy was won in May at the national stadium. This began as part of the winter era when seasons were played out like in football starting in September and concluding in May.
Thus, the Challenge Cup Final was saved until the very end of the season as the sport’s main show piece event and to win the double or treble a side would have to finish top, win at Wembley and then win the Premiership – the precursor to the Grand Final – in a short burst at the end of the season much like what Manchester City had to do to win the treble in the 2022/23 Premier League season.
But when the game moved to the summer era, the date of the final remained the same even though the season was now starting in February and ending in October. The 1996 Challenge Cup was almost like the glue that kept the final winter season of 1995/96 and the inaugural Super League campaign in 1996 together.
Then it continued to be played in May in 1997 onwards with the Challenge Cup often being a Super League side’s first game such as in 1999 when Leeds Rhinos defeated Wigan Warriors in Round One of the Challenge Cup to start the season avenging their Grand Final defeat to end 1998.
This system would persist until 2005 when the final’s second traditional date would be born. More akin to the the way things used to be with two big finals close together, the Challenge Cup Final moved to the end of August around six weeks before the end of the season completely making winning the double much tougher.
The final would take place on August bank holiday weekend, a smart decision to entice fans to go to London, or other locations given that Wembley was being rebuilt at the time. This also meant that it avoided clashing with FA Cup Finals and promotion play-offs in football.
So, the Challenge Cup Final remained at the end of August from 2005 through until 2020 when it was scheduled to be brought forward to July. However, the pandemic actually saw it pushed back as the only final played in October as Leeds defeated Salford Red Devils.
In 2021, with limited capacity due to the pandemic, the final between St Helens and Castleford Tigers did take place in July as originally planned on the 17th before in 2022 it was returned to May but at the Tottenham Hotspurs Stadium due to clashes with the promotion play-offs in football.
This came as the RFL struggled to decide when it should be played and in 2023 it returned to August only for IMG and RL Commercial to decide to move it to June 8th in 2024 and onwards to try and give it more breathing space and be more enticing.
After years of moving, they had better be satisfied with their new position on the calendar as they will struggle to return to August bank holiday weekend.
This is because pro-wrestling company AEW have plans to make their biggest pay-per-view event All In an annual event at Wembley after achieving huge success this August bank holiday.
They have already booked the stadium for 2024 August bank holiday and reports suggest they want to keep the run going.
You may think rugby league would have more pull power than a secondary wrestling promotion, but this is sadly not the case. All In brought in an attendance of nearly 80,000 in 2023 whilst only 58,000 fans were in attendance at the same stadium for this year’s Challenge Cup Final.
So, this move is a dangerous one for the sport and one that will also see the Magic Weekend moved likely to August. A massive gamble all around.