This column originally appeared in Rugby League World. Get your copy every month in stores, or alternatively, purchase an online subscription at totalrl.com/shop.
I’m worried that the Challenge Cup is losing its appeal and we can’t afford to let it wither.
Let me start by saying that the Challenge Cup is one of the most prestigious competitions in world Rugby League. It has an incredibly rich heritage that we can all be proud of. But I do think we need to be honest and admit it has lost its spark a little bit in the modern era. It no longer captures the imagination as it once did and it lacks the profile it once had. It’s almost as if it has become lost in the midst of a busy Super League season, to the extent that the Grand Final has become everyone’s main focus and eclipsed the Challenge Cup completely.
Scheduling is a big problem. It seems to take an eternity for the cup to run its course these days, with whole months going by in between rounds. On that basis, it is impossible for it to build any real momentum or capture the imagination of the fans or the media.
The final remains a fantastic showpiece occasion, it’s an absolute honour to be involved in and a great advert for Rugby League, but we do need to look at addressing the weaknesses that exist in the competition before we get to the final, if we are going to safeguard it for future generations.
In the days before the game switched to summer, the Challenge Cup final was played in May and it was seen as the big finale to the season. Now that has been replaced by the Grand Final, and the Challenge Cup final is at the end of August, just before we reach the play-offs, and it feels a little bit adrift in the season because of that, almost an interruption rather than the pinnacle of achievement it should be viewed as. It just doesn’t fit right.
Moving the final to May, for old time’s sake, could be a little early the way the season runs now, perhaps June or July would be better, when it wouldn’t clash with the build-up to the play-offs, we could expect decent weather and it could establish itself as a highlight to look forward to in a part of the season that wouldn’t have any other distractions.
In terms of improving crowds for Challenge Cup games, which are almost always lower than regular league games nowadays, I think it is essential for clubs to start incorporating cup games into their season ticket offers. In addition, the cup games need promoting in their own right, perhaps targeting people who don’t or can’t go to every game in a season, and making them feel like special events, which they ought to be.
From a player’s perspective, outside winning the final, there aren’t many financial rewards to participating in the Challenge Cup. You motivate yourself by seeing it as the opportunity to win one of the sport’s most iconic trophies. Perhaps for clubs and fans in the lower leagues, finding that motivation is much harder because realistically their chances of making progress towards the final and playing at Wembley are much reduced.
There could be some mileage in terms of boosting interest for those clubs and fans by having a subsidiary competition that offers them a genuine opportunity to play at Wembley on cup final day. Not so much a consolation prize for clubs knocked out in earlier rounds, I think that was tried once before, but a competition in its own right such as a league cup, where the final is played at Wembley before the Challenge Cup final. We do need to look at ways in which we can get as many fans as possible to see a realistic pathway to their club appearing at Wembley, that would help re-ignite interest across the whole sport.
For a player, walking out at Wembley is your dream, not getting a paycheck at the end of the month. For semi-professional players, they work and train hard, why shouldn’t they be able to dream about playing at Wembley one day for their club, it shouldn’t become the exclusive preserve of full-time professionals in Super League. Perhaps that’s why some of the old magic has gone now.
It’s a shame as we have actually had some genuine cup upsets this year that should have been bigger talking points and made more of an impact on the public consciousness than they did. Toulouse from League One beating the Championship leaders Leigh, and even more spectacular, Oldham who only just got promoted into the Championship, beating a Super League club, Hull KR. These should be stories that become part of Rugby League folklore, it’s the very essence of what the Challenge Cup should be all about and we don’t make enough of it. No one expects Oldham to make the final, but the players who were in that team to beat Hull KR will carry that with them for the rest of their careers.
Memories are what makes the Challenge Cup so special. I have been lucky enough to play in two finals and it is a great experience. Walking out at Wembley is on another level to anything else, the noise is deafening and it makes the hairs on the back of your neck stand on end.
Before I became a professional player, I would always watch it on TV, and I still have old VHS tapes of past finals. That’s what hooked me and got me into the sport, I love it and we should never underestimate the value of having this fantastic competition on national TV.
The Rugby League community has lost a real gentleman and an iconic player in Roger Millward who passed away recently. Roger played his last ever game at Wembley in a Challenge Cup final, for Hull KR against their biggest rivals Hull FC. What an emotional day that must have been. Roger was ahead of his time as a player, fast and skilful, an Ashes winner with Great Britain and a successful coach too. I was fortunate enough to meet him on one occasion when I was representing England, and he was a polite, gentle and generous man, it was a real honour.