Martyn Sadler: Make the Challenge Cup a group stage competition

Martyn Sadler, the editor of League Express, explains how the Challenge Cup could be restored to its former glory. This is an updated and modified version of an article that first appeared in the March edition of Rugby League World magazine.

The Ladbrokes Challenge Cup needs to be revitalised.

I don’t think many Rugby League supporters would argue with that proposition.

It’s the oldest Rugby League competition in the world, having been inaugurated in 1897, and for most of Rugby League’s history the Challenge Cup was the most prestigious trophy to win.

But since the introduction of Super League attendances have fallen and even the Cup Final at Wembley hasn’t sold out for many years.

The current league format was introduced in 2015, with the RFL saying it would review the structure after three years. I assume that will happen after this season, although it appears that any agreed changes will probably take effect from 2019.

The one thing that is obvious about the current format is that the Challenge Cup is in crisis.

The problems are many, and they are mostly well known, but they can be summarised as follows.

Firstly, Challenge Cup ties are all pay, with season tickets not giving admission to matches, inevitably reducing attendances when fans have to pay at the gate.

Secondly, the competition is played at intermittent points throughout the season, sometimes with as many as seven weeks between successive rounds, meaning that fans struggle to focus on the tournament from one round to the next.

This is in sharp contrast to what used to happen when I was a youngster. In those days the first round of the Challenge Cup was held in February, and the succeeding rounds came every two weeks. The Cup was always eagerly awaited, and the Challenge Cup draws would be held on the BBC’s Look North programme on a Monday evening immediately after a weekend of action.

The excitement built up from round to round, and attendances for Challenge Cup matches greatly exceeded those for league matches between the same clubs.
Today we see the reverse effect.

Roger Millward shows off the Challenge Cup.

The third point is that the old incentive for small clubs to play bigger ones to benefit from a big gate has almost disappeared.

These days the Super League clubs enter the competition in its later stages, and by that stage, the smaller clubs, particularly from League One, have already been knocked out of the Cup. In contrast to what happens in the FA Cup, for example, we rarely see battles between the giants and the minnows anymore, which tends to take away the romance of a knockout tournament.

The final point, and one that is linked to the last point is that Challenge Cup shock results are few and far between these days. The lack of shock results will then almost guarantee a limited media interest in the competition.

Some people also point to the fact that the move of the Challenge Cup Final to late August, which happened for the first time in 2006, has hardly been an unqualified success if we judge the move by the attendances at the Cup Final.

They believe that the Cup Final should revert to being played in May, for example, although I’m not sure that such a move would do anything to build up attendances or TV audiences without some of the other changes that need to be made to the format of the Cup.

There is also the point that the Challenge Cup is a BBC broadcasting property, as opposed to BSkyB’s role in broadcasting Super League. So the Challenge Cup is not promoted by Sky in the way that Super League is.

A solution – 8 groups of 5

For the last 20 years the decline in support for the Challenge Cup has been unrelenting.

So it’s about time the RFL made some radical changes designed to counter that trend.

It has to show it can think creatively about the problems I’ve identified.

Here is what I think the governing body should do to at least give the Cup a chance of rediscovering its former glories.

The existence of 40 professional and semi-professional clubs makes a solution to the problems I’ve identified above eminently achievable.

St Helens’ 1996 Cup winning side

The solution is to pool and regionalise the early stages of the competition, creating eight pools, each of five clubs, with each club playing at home or away against every other club in its pool.

Given that there are 24 clubs in Super League and the Championship combined, and 16 clubs in League One, it is easy to get a fair distribution of clubs at different levels in each pool.

Each pool of five clubs would contain one or two Super League or Championship clubs, and two League One clubs.

The pools would be selected on the basis of geography to generate local derbies, although there can’t be an absolute split geographically because of the fact that all the Super League clubs bar one are located in Yorkshire and Lancashire, while the clubs in the other leagues are more widespread geographically.

In my view this would give supporters of clubs in close proximity to their traditional rivals something to really look forward to early in the season.

The Proposed Pools

The proposed are based on the 2017 composition of Super League, Championship & League 1. They may change for 2018 in response to any promotions and relegations that take place at the end of the current season.

Pool 1. Wigan, Leigh, Oldham, Whitehaven, Workington
Pool 2. Hull FC, Hull KR, Sheffield, Doncaster, York
Pool 3. Leeds, Bradford, Halifax, Hunslet, Keighley
Pool 4. Castleford, Wakefield, Featherstone, Coventry, Newcastle
Pool 5. Huddersfield, Batley, Dewsbury, Hemel, Oxford
Pool 6. Warrington, Widnes, Swinton, North Wales, South Wales
Pool 7. Catalans, London Broncos, Toulouse, Gloucester, London Skolars
Pool 8. St Helens, Salford, Rochdale, Barrow, Toronto

Starting the season

Under this structure the Challenge Cup pool games should be played in the first five weeks of the season, ideally straight after the World Club Series, which should open the new season.

Each team would play two home games and two away games with one bye on successive weeks over a five-week period from the weekend following the World Club Series games.

There would be five solid weeks of Challenge Cup action before the league competitions begin.

The group fixtures would be created along with the league fixtures before the season starts.

The Super League and Championship clubs would play one home game and one away game against each other, and one home game and one away game against the two League One clubs.
Each League 1 club would, therefore, have at least one home game against a Super League or Championship club.

Kevin Sinfield with the trophy in 2014

Because the fixtures would be organised in advance, the clubs could give admission through season tickets, removing at a stroke the disincentive to attend Challenge Cup matches and I’m sure there would be a lot of interesting in seeing how clubs at different levels would compete against each other.

Progress from the Pools

The top two clubs in each pool of 5 would go through to the last 16, when the competition would revert to a knockout format.

The top League One club from each pool would go forward into the last 8 of the League One Cup, when that competition also reverts to a knockout format.

It means that all the clubs would have a lot to play for in the pool stages of the competition, with three out of the five in each pool progressing to a knockout stage of the Challenge Cup or the League 1 Cup.

Advantages of this proposal

1. The pool fixtures can be included in season tickets, with the likely positive impact on attendances at the pool stage of the Challenge Cup.

2. With five successive weeks of Challenge Cup fixtures, it will allow the Cup to become firmly established in the minds of supporters at the start of the season.

3. Although the competition can’t be fully regionalised, under this proposal traditional rivals playing in different tiers would in most cases play against each other, for example Wakefield, Castleford and Featherstone, Hull FC and Hull KR, or Leeds and Bradford.

4. For the Super League clubs, playing clubs from the lower levels of the game would be a good substitute for some of their pre-season fixtures and it would be a chance to test their whole squad prior to the start of the Super League season.

5. The League 1 clubs would not realistically expect to qualify for the next round of the Challenge Cup, but the fact that the highest finisher of the two League 1 clubs in each pool will go through to the last 8 of the League One Cup will ensure that they have a lot of interest throughout the pool stage of the competition.

6. The broadcasting rights to the pool stages of the competition could be sold separately to BSkyB and/or the BBC. The prospect of some exciting local derbies should excite the broadcasters, as well as supporters.

7. The fact that the pool games last for five weeks, with a club in each pool having a bye on a weekly basis, would facilitate the prospect of the World Club Series matches being played in Australia. If the WCS games started the season, at they ought, then the three Super League teams travelling down under could be given byes in the first week of the Challenge Cup pool games.

Disadvantages of this proposal

1. This would be a radical re-formatting of the Challenge Cup and, as such, some supporters would find it difficult to come to terms with.

2. Realistically, there would only be enough room for this proposal if the current structure of the competitions was revised so that, for example, the three leagues operated in a more conventional format at present with 22 or 23 regular season fixtures but without the Super 8s.

3. This proposal would see the amateurs no longer taking part in the competition.