Michael Shenton Column: Restoring the ‘magic’ of the Challenge Cup

“The Challenge Cup is an extremely special part of our sporting culture and I believe it should be held in the same regard as the Grand Final, if not higher.”

With the new league structure introduced this year, there has been a lot of intrigue and excitement about how the season will work out. With all the buzz surrounding the Super League competition, the Challenge Cup would have been at the back of a lot of people’s minds, at least until rounds 5 and 6 when the entry of the Super League teams pushes it back onto the radar.

I think the Challenge Cup is a massive part of our game as it brings together all levels of Rugby League from amateur to full-time professional teams. It is steeped in history and has produced many of our game’s finest moments.

The magic of the cup is the opportunity it creates for all teams, whether it is amateur clubs hoping to draw a professional club, or getting the chance to support your team at Wembley, or as a player walking out there and giving yourself the chance to lift the trophy.

It is an extremely special part of our sporting culture and I believe it should be held in the same regard as the Grand Final, if not higher, but I’m not sure that’s been the case in recent times.

Reaching the Challenge Cup final last year is the highlight of my Castleford career so far and the memories of that day and the entire cup run will stay with me forever. What made it so special were our supporters and how they bought into the whole experience. Even though we were doing well in the league all the fans wanted to talk about was the cup, what it meant to go to Wembley and the chance to see us play there.

Even with my recent experience I believe along with many others that the Challenge Cup has lost a bit of its romance. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still a very special part of our game, it just feels to have taken a backward step and now sits behind the Super League competition.

I think this is due to a number of reasons.

A big thing that stuck in my mind from my experience last year and strikes me as being a serious issue was the scheduling of fixtures. There are a wide variety of gaps between Cup games, the shortest being two weeks and the longest being eight weeks. This is an issue because cup runs can be built on momentum. Say your team has a great quarter final win over a top four Super League team, the confidence will be flying high, the interest from fans and the media will be huge. If the semi-final was three weeks down the track, all that interest and excitement that is fresh in people’s minds is carried into the semi-final automatically. Instead, the gap between the quarters and the semi is eight weeks. So, the excitement and anticipation gradually gets diluted, interest fades and clubs have a big job reigniting all those emotions for a game that shouldn’t need it.

Another issue is the TV coverage. I’ve always associated the Challenge Cup with the BBC and I think when they do show the games they do a good job and they also get current and ex-players as pundits which is good to watch but they just don’t show enough games anymore. My memories of the Challenge Cup growing up were of planning everything around the live games covered by the BBC over the full weekend. There would always be two games covered whereas now the earlier rounds usually only seem to warrant one game. This must hurt the sport and the Challenge Cup. Free-to-air terrestrial TV coverage is invaluable because of the viewing figures it can generate, so fewer games being covered means less interest in the tournament.

I mentioned earlier about the Super League being the priority competition and a bit of evidence to back this up can be seen within the new structure of both competitions.

This year, round 5 of the Challenge Cup saw last season’s 9th to 12th placed teams enter, but where this would previously have just been a cup-game weekend, it also saw the remaining Super League teams who are yet to enter the cup face each other in league games. So, interest that should be solely focused on the cup is drawn away because there are Super League ties taking place.

I’m not entirely sure why the RFL has made these changes to the cup but we won’t know how effective they’ve been until later down the track. Hopefully it will be prove to have been a positive move.

My own view is that the Challenge Cup needs to have its own identity. Maybe having a May or June final would help create this, as well as having fixtures scheduled no more than three weeks apart so momentum can be maintained and place the cup consistently in the forefront of people’s minds right up until the final.

After the final in May or June, all focus could then be placed on the new Super 8 format of Super League.

The Challenge Cup should be seen as having a bit of romance and magic about it. I still believe it does and I’m sure if it became a bigger focus for the administrators within the game, it could recapture its former glory.

Michael Shenton writes every month for Rugby League World. This article was first published in Issue 409 (June 2015). Download the app now for the digital edition or go to www.totalrl.com/shop for subscriptions and back issues.