COLUMN: A solution for the 1895 Cup problems which includes the Yorkshire/Lancashire Cups

In true rugby league fashion, the 1895 Cup is already attracting its fair share of criticism within the sport before its inaugural edition has even been completed.

You could argue Halifax coach Simon Grix lit the touchpaper this week. Whether or not his comments about the competition being ‘Mickey Mouse’ are right or wrong, it is almost impossible to argue with his rationale that lower-league clubs are playing too many games, irrespective of Derek Beaumont’s subsequent retort.

Bradford and Halifax, as a result of making the Challenge Cup quarter-finals, are the two teams who felt the fixture backlog the most – not least when you factor in that both those teams, plus several others, played in the revived (albeit pre-season, non-competitive) Yorkshire Cup. That’s putting too much pressure on players, a lot of whom are part-time. So if the clubs are serious about keeping that tournament – and reviving an equivalent version in Lancashire – plus making the 1895 Cup, how do they do it? Here’s one proposal.

The Teams Involved

This year’s 1895 Cup saw the following teams opt out: Coventry Bears, North Wales, London Skolars, Toulouse and Toronto. We shall assume, for the purposes of this proposal, they do so again: and Ottawa also are exempt. That leaves us with 20 teams, which we will group into two sections:

  • Yorkshire: Doncaster, Hunslet, Keighley, Batley, Bradford, Dewsbury, Halifax, Featherstone, Sheffield, York.
  • Lancashire/The West: Barrow, Widnes, Leigh, Rochdale, Swinton, Oldham, West Wales, Whitehaven, Workington, Newcastle.

The one anomaly here is Newcastle Thunder who, in the interests of creating an even split, fall into the opposite bracket. Each bracket then enters its own competition, beginning in pre-season: the Yorkshire Cup and the Lancashire Cup, or a slightly-tweaked name to accommodate for teams from outside the region.

In each bracket of ten, the four teams who finished the lowest in the league standings the previous season will play a preliminary round in pre-season, with two sides eliminated from the running, leaving eight in each competition. Those 16 teams, while also playing for their regional cup, now become the last 16 of the 1895 Cup.

The last 16 ties also take place in pre-season – preferably the week before the league season begins, in order to ramp up some interest in the competition and whet the appetite for the new campaign. The eight teams who win those ties – four from each region – advance to the Yorkshire/Lancashire Cup semi-finals, plus the quarter-finals of the 1895 Cup.

The competitions can then take a break for a few months, resuming in May perhaps with the next round of fixtures. The winners of the Yorkshire/Lancashire Cup semi-finals advance to the finals which, to further create interest in both those tournaments and the 1895 Cup, are played in a double-header at a stadium such as the Halliwell Jones or Emerald Headingley. After all, as a sport we want to create more events. Having a Sunday afternoon in June or July with four of the biggest clubs outside Super League descending on one stadium is certainly one way to do that.

A day that would not ony crown the winners of the Yorkshire and Lancashire Cups, but also determine the two finalists who in August would meet at Wembley to decide the big one – the winner of the 1895 Cup. Talk about an incentive or two. Used last season, the final league standings would have produced the following format and fixtures to begin the competitions:

Yorkshire Cup Preliminary Round
Bradford v Keighley, Doncaster v Hunslet

Teams advancing to First Round Proper
York, Sheffield, Dewsbury, Batley, Featherstone, Halifax

Lancashire Cup Preliminary Round
Oldham v West Wales, Whitehaven v Newcastle

Teams advancing to First Round Proper
Workington, Swinton, Rochdale, Barrow, Leigh, Widnes

This system, in my mind, achieves several things:

  • Most importantly of all, it reduces the fixture backlog somewhat from the current schedule.
  • It provides inclusivity for the Yorkshire and Lancashire Cups; several Yorkshire-based teams were bemused by the apparent invite-only format of this year’s competition.
  • It revives two competitions that still surely have a place in the game, given their heritage and history.
  • It makes league placings at the end of the previous season matter, as teams will have the incentive of avoiding finishing in the bottom four teams in each region that have to enter the preliminary round.

Of course, the fact the final is played after the Challenge Cup final, rather than as the curtain-raiser everyone expected, is another issue. That’s one hopefully the RFL rectify without too much deliberation moving forward!