Robbie Hunter-Paul: How we can save the Challenge Cup

This article, written by Robbie Hunter-Paul, originally appeared in issue 398 of Rugby League World magazine. Issue 399 is currently in production and will be on sale from June 6. Click here to find out more about the magazine and to browse back issues click this link

The Tetley’s Challenge Cup holds a special place in my heart – and it’s not just because I’ve enjoyed the lifting the oldest trophy in our sport on a couple of occasions. The competition takes me to a special time and place from my childhood that will forever be fused into my subconscious.

Some of my earliest memories of Rugby League are of my parents waking big brother Henry and I up, in the early hours of the morning in May, to watch a Rugby League final being played on the other side of the world.

Leeds-Rhinos-1999-challenge-cupThe commentator, Ray French, seemed to have a funny accent and the players all played in baggy shirts and tiny shorts.

I was a big fan of the Iro brothers Kevin and Tony, but there were also a host of other legends from before them like the Sorensen brothers, Ellery Hanley, Andy Gregory, Lee Crooks, James Leuluai and Henderson Gill. These heroes from my childhood made waking up at ‘silly o’clock’ in the morning all the more worthwhile. They were exciting to watch and laid the platform and planted the seed that made me want to become a professional sportsman.

The Challenge Cup was the only Rugby League competition from Britain televised down under when we were growing up, so when I decided to ply my trade in England I hoped and wished that one day I would be good enough to walk out with my team at the famous twin towers.

Now that I have enjoyed the magic of the cup for over 20 years, I have come to see that it is so much more than just a Rugby League tournament.

The Challenge Cup is ruthless as it does not give you a second chance. When playing, every game needs to be treated like it’s a final. It takes a different mentality to reach the final, meaning every player from 1-17 must perform.

It can make a career and break a career. The cup is a journey and only one team will reach the destination.

Lost magic?
The elements above are what have always made the cup special and unique, but in recent years the introduction of the play-offs in Super League has taken some of that shine away from it. There is now an element of “do or die” which directly relates to the league competition and much of those unique selling points for the cup is now reflected in the Super League play-off’s.

Wigan-Challenge-CupSo does this mean the death of the Challenge Cup? Some will say it has already begun due to the low attendance figures for the earlier rounds of the cup, but you could argue that attendance figures across all sports has suffered due to the recession and introduction of more televised sport.

Some have also suggested rearranging the competition format to make the games more competitive due to the gulf between the full-time teams, semi-professionals and amateurs growing so dynamically apart.

Personally I would never want to see the cup disappear and maybe the real problem lies not in the competition format but how the tournament is positioned in the eyes of the supporters.

Where I feel we have missed a trick is by not allowing the cup to continue forward in its traditional approach. To be honest we have not marketed the competition as a whole for as long as I can remember.

The only real change we’ve made is by changing the final from May to the August bank holiday weekend. The way I see it is each of the sports mega events need to have their own story surrounding it which will allow each event to differentiate itself from each other.

The way I see the Challenge Cup positioned is by recognising its historical significance which makes it embraced so easily with the majority of our game’s supporters. With over 110 years of history, there are not many clubs that do not have their own Challenge Cup story, and as such it resonates with a huge section of our sports supporter base.

Wigan players celebrate Challenge Cup victoryMarketing push
If this is indeed true then it should be mass marketed and promoted as the whole sport’s big carnival day out. Every match leading up to the final should be encouraging this type of buy in and a ‘mardi gras’ type party in its approach.

Let it be a celebration of not only the two finalists, but the culture of the sport. Celebrate its northern heritage and focus of a coming together of the entire game, united as one.

Of course the two teams playing for the trophy will make up the lion’s share of the supporters, but let it also be repositioned as that big ‘mardi gras’ weekend away in the big smoke. Let it be a ‘the North invades the South’ mentality where we all get together and march down to London. Doesn’t that sound like a lot of fun?

This is how I see our different major events being positioned and marketed.

World Club Challenge

  • Europe versus Down Under (having been England against Australia up until now)
  • International-class entertainment

Magic Weekend

  • High class and action packed entertainment
  • Value for money

Challenge Cup Final

  • Mardi Gras-style weekend – a party for the whole sport
  • The ultimate prizefight

Super League Grand Final

  • The best of the best
  • What the whole season has all been about

Rest assured after the marketing success of the World Cup, much of the sport is better educated on how we approach the growth of our game. Importantly we at board level are working ever harder to glue our decisions closer together to benefit all of the sport, and to continue the development of our game at all levels.

That’s crucial for our marquee events like the Tetley’s Challenge Cup.

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