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How To Rejuvenate The Challenge Cup The Challenge Cup is the most historic and prestigious Rugby League competition in the world. The competition and it’s 127 year history is one the of our sports greatest achievements however it has seen a decline in recent years. If the competitions continues on its current trajectory we are at risk of losing one of the sport’s greatest assets and a legacy that can never be replaced. The Problems: Over the last 20 years or so the Challenge Cup faced difficulties including: The Super League Grand Final becoming the pinnacle of the Rugby League season Changes to the time of year the competition final is held Changes to the structure of the league season to include loop fixtures Changes to the structure of the cup competition itself Teams in the RFL domestic competitions opting out of the cup competition Economic downturn in working class areas due to government policy of Austerity and a Hard Brexit. For any meaningful changes rugby league needs to make for the good of the sport whether that is to include international fixtures, improve the cup competition, improve general attendance at regular season games we must remove loop fixtures from the Super League season. Nothing creates supporter apathy and disinterest from the average sports fan than over familiar repetitive fixtures. With Super League's one up, one down P&R creating a bottle neck for new faces to enter Super League. A six team (half the league) play-off system and loop fixtures there’s a chance a sports fan is asked to take seriously a rugby league fixture that can be replicated up to 3-5 times a season. This creates fan fatigue and diminishes all competitions including the Challenge Cup with is supposed to create rare, one-off, not to be missed fixtures. What the Challenge Cup needs to do? The Challenge Cup needs to improve in key areas: New Fan Engagement Current Fan Appreciation Competition significance Outreach The challenge cup needs to engage with new fans, keep the interest of established RL fans, improve its own prestige in the general UK sporting consciousness and needs to help Rugby League grow and gain attraction outside of the RL heartlands. The Solution The Challenge cup needs a rebrand as the "European" or "International" Challenge Cup. Rugby League barely boasted or promoted the inclusion of Edinburgh Eagles and the Galway Tribesmen to the Challenge Cup last year. The challenge cup already has English, Welsh and French teams that regularly play in the competition. Historically there have been Canadian and Russian and Serbian Rugby League teams to compete in the Challenge Cup. Continuing to ignore the international aspect of the Challenge Cup is criminal. It is one of the greatest rugby cup competition in the northern hemisphere yet its referred to as an English or British competition. There could be as many as seven different nations represented in the Challenge Cup and yet we and the rest of the country think of it as a northern sport. Sponsorship will be easier to attain by embracing the international element of the cup competition. All teams need to enter at round one. Last year 53 teams competed in the Challenge Cup (except Toulouse). 64 teams would be needed to create a six-phase competition; three rounds of fixtures followed by a quarter final stage, semi-final stage and final. One of the aspects of the current structure of the challenge cup is a team only need to win four games to win the competition outright. For fans there is no real sense of a journey for a Super League team to get to a prestigious cup final when they might have played one or two weaker teams to get there. This doesn’t create the sense of the pride in winning the competition which can be too easily won and dismissed as undeserved by other supporters. "But wouldn’t putting every team into round one would create very one-sided, unattractive games?" - Yes, but this is where we introduce a 1st team player handicap rule. Teams with semi or full-time professional status will only be able to pick a percentage of their matchday team from their full-time squad depending on the professional status of their opposition. A Super League team could only choose up to 44 percent or 8 players from their full-time squad to play a fixture against amateur opposition. The rest of their team must be made up of reserve or academy players. A semi-professional team against amateur opposition could only pick 66% or 12 players from their first team squad. A Super League team against a semi-professional team will be able to choose from 66% or 12 players from their full-time squad. Any team drawn to play against a team of the same professional status or higher can choose from their full-strength squad. This handicap will only be imposed at the 1st to 3rd round stage of the competition, from the quarter-final stage it remains as it is now. E.G Round One: St Helens v Rochdale Mayfield – St Helens can only pick 8 first team players. Round Two: St Helens v Batley Bulldogs – St Helens can only pick 12 first team players. Round Three: St Helens v Castleford Tigers – No handicap necessary Or Round One: London Broncos v Pilkington Recs – London Broncos can only pick 12 first team players. Round Two: London Broncos v Halifax – No handicap necessary. Round Three: London Broncos v Wigan – Wigan can only pick 12 first team players. Or Quarter Final: Bradford Bulls v Warrington Wolves – No handicap necessary This would make the competition vastly more entertaining, engaging and create a real sense of achievement by advancing through the competition. Amateur clubs will be able to enjoy the prospect of playing against or hosting Super League opposition which will skyrocket player participation and fan engagement. Semi-professional teams will have a grater chance of beating Super League opposition. Brand new clubs will not have to wait to gain successive promotions to have the premier teams and athletes in the country entertain new audiences to the sport. Current supporters will take a greater sense of pride in their team’s achievement of advancing to a cup final and winning it outright. This structure can also be applied to increase the appreciation and participation of the 1895 trophy by having teams enter that competition as a result of being knocked out of the challenge cup early stages. But not all Semi professional teams have a reserves or academy to pick from? True this would unduly hinder semi-pro teams with an academy system such as Bradford Bulls, London Broncos, Newcastle but this handicap would only apply against teams in fixtures that otherwise would be no-contests. Teams like Halifax would have no choice to play their full strength team against an amateur team which is no different to the current state of affairs we have now. Batley Bulldogs played the Royal Navy and Sheffield Eagles played Hunslet Parkside in the 4th round of the challenge cup in 2022. The competition loses nothing in this regard. 3. The Challenge Cup Final needs to remain on the August Bank Holiday. Changing the date of the final makes it harder for it to be established in the nation’s consciousness. Everyone knows when the Six nations, FA cup and Wimbledon competitions are held even if they don’t know the exact date. Many die-hard Rugby League supporters need to check online to even know when the final will be held as over the last 20 years its been in March, April, May, July & August. Where as the Grand Final in always early-mid October. Rugby League is unique in that it has a birthday 29th August 1895. The fact there is a bank holiday in the last weekend in August is perfect for Rugby League to exploit. Rugby League will always struggle to find a more perfect weekend to establish itself as the dominant sporting event of the weekend. The fact we are running away from the fight for attention as other things happen that weekend is a sign on the regressive/pessimistic thinking currently suffocating rugby League. 4. Make participation of The Challenge Cup a requirement of all teams competing in RFL league domestic competitions. Super League status require an academy/reserves team. The fact a team in the domestic leagues can opt out of the challenge cup is an insult to the cup competition. Many fans and players were drawn to Rugby League through the success of the Challenge Cup. Many of the sports greatest players are household names due to their exploits in the Challenge Cup. The fact that Rugby League has any regards as a sport is in part due to the prestige of and popularity of the Challenge Cup. It has provided the some of the greatest drama and iconic moments that transcend all sport. Martin Offiah's length of the field try in 1995. John Pendlebury's tackle in the 1987 Cup Final. Don Fox's infamous miss in the 1968 "Watersplash" final. 102,000 people watching 1954 cup replay at Odsal stadium. No football team would pass up the opportunity to play in the FA cup. The disrespect shown to the competition can only serve to diminish it. That's why all teams in the RFL elite domestic leagues should have to play in the Challenge Cup to keep their league status. Also to improve the game as a whole any club with Super League ambitions should be able to field at least one other team as a reserve or academy. This will prevent boom and bust clubs who prioritise short term success over longevity. Congratulations to anyone for reading this far, I appreciate it. I would love to hear you thoughts. JAG
The Dockhouse Rugby show was privileged to be invited to the Forces Rugby League press conference earlier this week. We were updated on the forces rugby league development, the tri series later this year, introduction to ambassadors for both men’s and women’s teams and an insight into the unique support towards the teams and players. I think it’s fair to say Rugby League has been a slow burner in the forces although they have performed admirably in the Challenge Cup in previous years, but recently they have seen massive growth in terms of allocated time, resources, and player pool. The introduction recently of the women teams has seen several already make the jump to the top levels of Women’s RL in the UK with many joining Super League teams. Both the men’s and women’s teams draw players from areas not known for playing rugby league further spreading the code to new areas. How much do you know of the history of forces RL? Well ,the British Army Rugby League team is the official rugby league team representing the British Army, likewise the RAF and Navy Rugby League Teams. The British Army Team was founded in 1994 when the Army first recognised rugby league as an official sport and lifted a ban on it. The forces teams are able to play in the Challenge Cup. The team play their home matches at Aldershot Military Stadium in Aldershot, Hampshire. An Army women's team was set up in 2019 and continues to grow. The Army Vs RAF game, both men’s and women’s will be televised and comes just a week before the start of the 2022 Rugby League World Cup. The forces tri-series later this year contains some mouth-watering encounters. These exciting games are supported by big name ambassadors Jonathan Davies, Adrian Morley and Paul Sculthorpe which shows the demand for forces RL. Paul Sculthorpe was on hand to help promote this thrilling Rugby League initiative earlier this week when he spoke to the Dockhouse Rugby show at the Forces press conference in York. The Army Rugby League team were awarded the Armed Forces team of the year which further demonstrates the rapid growth of both the standard but also the commitment to RL from the forces. Please check out numerous interviews, videos and updates from the Dockhouse Rugby Show from the press conference in York on Monday 7th February 2022 Link to first interview here, https://www.facebook.com/groups/1361836814234490/permalink/1427695960981908/?sfnsn=scwspmo&ref=share