What’s to be done about the Challenge Cup? It’s a question that crops up round about this time every year, usually in the wake of a blowout scoreline or a disappointing attendance. There is never any shortage of options for changing the game’s oldest and most famous knockout competition to try and address its apparent failings, ranging from straightforward seeding through to more complex fixture formats.
The danger is that any perceived weaknesses are magnified out of all proportion and knee-jerk changes are then made which could actually make matters worse.
The essential beauty of the Challenge Cup is its simplicity and openness. No matter what level a club plays the game, they can all have a crack at Wembley and dream of winning the Challenge Cup.
Of course, the harsh reality of modern sport is that the full-time professional clubs have an infinitely better chance of winning the major tournaments, but the dream still endures for the rest. Winning really isn’t everything when it comes to allure of the Cup, or at least it shouldn’t be. To remove the opportunity to dream, however remote the reality might be of a club from outside Super League reaching Wembley, by tinkering with the way in which the current draw works could end up diminishing interest in it completely for many people.
Once a club loses its own stake in the ultimate prize, why should they care about it any longer?
Warrington Wolves head coach Tony Smith perhaps surprisingly sets his face against making dramatic changes to the Cup format, even in the aftermath of his own club’s 112-0 hammering of Swinton Lions and there seems to be little appetite for change from the Championship clubs themselves.
The open draw may not have done Swinton any favours this year, but other Championship clubs have pushed Super League opposition hard when given their chance. The quarter-final draw has produced four potentially mouthwatering clashes too. Just how ‘broke’ is the Challenge Cup in reality?
Rather than look for some kind of dramatic restructure, why not consider some degree of augmentation instead, to make it more appealing to diehards and casual spectators alike, to boost crowds and keep the Wembley dream alive for more clubs and for longer.
The simplest solution to increasing crowds is to include the games in the cost of a season ticket. But further to that, Rugby League is not averse to dusting off an old idea and giving it a new polish, as we’ve seen this season with the arrival of the Exiles (aka Other Nationalities) so I’d like to see the reintroduction of the ‘Plate’ competition which burst into life in 1997 and then disappeared immediately afterwards. It was denigrated at the time, wrongly in my view, as a consolation prize, a second chance for defeated clubs to sneak past winners and claim a Wembley appearance by default. Those criticisms could be challenged with a bit of positive ‘spin’ and a tweak or two to the qualifying criteria to avoid clubs potentially ‘throwing’ an earlier round game in order to benefit from entry into the ‘easier to win’ Plate. Over time, the actual experiences of those clubs outside Super League who currently have little chance of reaching Wembley getting to enjoy a day out on the biggest stage of all with all the glamour and money-making opportunities that go with it, would surely boost its status.
It would add even greater value to the Cup final experience without detracting from the main event. It would help to reconnect those fans who feel their clubs have been left behind by the onset of full-time professionalism and add even more sparkle to Rugby League’s most popular day out.
Wouldn’t it be fantastic to see old established names like Leigh, Batley, Featherstone, Swinton, Barrow, Hunslet (who appeared in the original Plate final against Hull KR) and newcomers like Gateshead, London Skolars and South Wales be in with a genuine shot of playing at Wembley, rather than being left to chase what increasingly looks like an impossible dream?
First published in RLW issue 363