With the quarter-finals taking place this weekend, TONY NOLAN, a regular columnist for League Express, puts forward a proposal that he believes would help restore the magic of the Challenge Cup.
In 2015 British Rugby League is in a new era, with revised league structures and phrases like ‘Every Minute Matters’.
Whilst such changes may have helped to re-invigorate the divisional games on a week to week basis, these continue to be played alongside a Challenge Cup competition with a format that has hardly changed since it first began back in 1896.
However whilst these changes appear to have created a greater interest in league matches, due to the reintroduced threat of promotion and relegation, the attraction for the Challenge Cup continues to wane and is clearly a cost burden to clubs and a meaningless competition to the majority of fans, unless their side reaches Wembley.
Following the introduction of summer rugby, having to compete in the Cup competition seems to have become a cost that all participants have to absorb. In 2015 forty amateur clubs took part in the competition. Their participation was based on their position in the Conference structure.
Let’s take the example of a club like Skirlaugh. In 2013 they were drawn to play the Royal Navy away in the second round. The cost of travelling to the south coast and overnight accommodation far outweighed any prize money on offer. The East Yorkshire club won and their reward was a third round tie at home to Gloucestershire All Golds, which had to be hosted away from their usual ground and generated minimal revenue from a crowd of 260. In 2015 this tie was repeated in the third round, although this time Skirlaugh had to travel to Gloucester, where they lost in front of a meagre 87 spectators. It wasn’t a financial winner for either club.
Therefore, for the amateur sides, is playing in the Challenge Cup worthwhile? Participation must be a big financial burden, depending on who they draw and how far they progress, at a time when many are struggling to survive and fulfil their fixtures.
The same question can be asked for Championship clubs. Despite having an attractive home tie against Warrington in the sixth round, Dewsbury attracted fewer than 1,400 spectators. This was in part because the Rams rested key players before their league game against Sheffield four days later. This indicates that clubs now place a far greater importance on league games under the new structure and that playing Cup games is just an unwanted distraction.
It is exactly the same at the Super league level. In Round 6 the attendance in France was around 90% lower than the numbers Catalans usually draw, whilst only around half of the usual Headingley congregation turned up to watch the current Cup holders Leeds defeat Huddersfield.
Staging Rugby League matches is an expensive business, especially when ground rent has to be paid and there is minimal match day revenue coming in to cover costs. Currently the majority of monies for most Super League clubs comes from television deals rather than paying spectators. Dr. Koukash has recently talked about the high costs of staging matches at Salford’s AJ Bell stadium and he is not a lone voice. Presumably the reason why a Hull FC spokesman, before the Cup’s fifth round draw on the banks of the River Hull, surprisingly said he would prefer to be drawn away to a Championship side, was because the staging of a home tie and the renting of the KC Stadium would not be financially viable for the Airlie Birds?
In this era of summer rugby, is the staging of a Cup competition even practical? With some clubs now sharing grounds with football teams there is no guarantee that stadiums are available if a team is drawn at home. This happened to Wigan when they had to move their sixth round fixture to Leigh and perhaps contributed to the Warriors losing to Hull KR by giving up home advantage. The same fate could occur for Huddersfield and Hull FC. Having to take such actions seems to devalue the competition.
Due to the expense for its participants, the lack of interest in it from spectators and the potential problems it causes, should the Challenge Cup be scrapped? The answer should be an emphatic NO. The final of the competition at Wembley is still the one domestic game which captures the attention of the national media and is broadcast to millions on terrestrial television. For that reason alone the competition should exist. Therefore, how does the sport overcome some of the negatives highlighted and generate renewed interest in the Cup?
One way would be to borrow from the league competition. However not everything is rosy in its restructured garden. The league competition still remains unfair to some teams. Whilst playing each other home and away once is acceptable, the existence of a 23rd fixture in the top two divisions is a cause for concern. Although it takes place on neutral grounds, the playing for league points at the Magic Weekend and the Summer Bash can still be detrimental to some more than others. However the fixtures are determined, one team will always have to play the league leaders whilst another, in theory, will have the advantage of playing the club propping up the table.
If, due to the results in this extra league fixture, Castleford’s victory over Wakefield means they just make the top 8 or that Featherstone miss out on the middle eights because they lost against Leigh, then cries of “unfair” will be heard and the shouts will grow louder in future years. Would something like this spoil the concept of the Magic Weekend going forward?
Disparity also exists between Super League clubs because of the way the Challenge Cup rounds were reformatted this year. The bottom four clubs in 2014 entered the competition earlier than others. The knock-on effect of this is that the two Hull clubs, Salford and Wakefield will now have to play a midweek fixture. Whilst it is unfair for just these clubs to have to play three games in around seven plays, it is also unfair that some teams will get the advantage of playing these teams in the third of these fixtures when they are tired or carrying injuries. Again such factors influencing results could have major consequences on final league positions.
With a real focus and importance now in the game for clubs to make the top 8 or the middle 8 division come August, it is imperative that the RFL structure the competition and its fixtures so that it is fair to all and does not disadvantage anybody. The obvious solution to this is to scrap the 23rd league fixture, which is theory would mean an end to the Magic Weekend and its Championship equivalent. Whilst Dr Koukash may want to do this and introduce a Nines competition, this should not happen, at least for the Magic Weekend.
The two day jamboree has built up into a wonderful unique sporting contest that appears to be loved by players and spectators alike. It should be a great marketing tool for the RFL that should be developed, rather than going stale, which is possible in its current format.
Therefore how can interest in the Challenge Cup be regenerated, whilst at the same time making the league competitions fair and even, as well as developing the Magic Weekend? The simple answer is just a bit of tinkering and swapping.
Firstly the Challenge Cup needs to be restructured. The first round should have 32 participants, being the 12 Championship clubs, the 14 Championship One teams and just 6 amateur sides. These could be say the National Conference League champions, their play off winners, the two National Cup finalists, the Conference South winners and the French champions. Rules could be set to determine who qualifies if the same team wins both the league and the cup. This could be played late January / early February, before the Championship season starts.
Doing this reduces the cost burden on amateur outfits who are forced to enter the competition. It gives an extra incentive to win the qualifying competitions, knowing that they get an immediate chance to play a Championship side, which currently doesn’t happen and its gives an elitism to clubs to say that they are one of the few teams who qualified. Whilst it may be argued that this takes away ‘the magic of the cup’ for many amateur sides, this is not football. The chances of any such team overcoming even a Championship side, let alone a fully professional Super League are minimal. However if it was felt that more amateur clubs should compete then participants could be increased to 12 or 24, but this would mean qualifying rounds before round one to determine the six qualifiers.
The sixteen first-round winners should then compete in round 2 in mid to late February and these eight victors should then play in the third round in mid-March. This would then leave 4 clubs that are still in the competition and these should join all 12 Super League sides that year to play in Round 4. However, this is where the major change should take place. In its league structures the RFL should scrap the 23rd additional fixture and instead the fourth round of the Challenge Cup should be staged at the ‘Magic Weekend’, with 8 Cup ties, played on the same neutral venue, over two days. This should take place on the last weekend in May before the bank holiday Monday.
This immediately takes away the disadvantages in the Super League of certain clubs having to play midweek fixtures, because of the Cup format, and there are no inequalities from playing a team more than twice if this additional league fixture disappears.
With regard to the Cup, it takes away the expense of staging an additional home tie and the problem of whether or not the club can actually accommodate it. Super League clubs would only have the possibility of a home tie in the quarter final, played when football clubs are preparing to start their season, with the semi finals remaining as neutral venues.
Would this change work, and would the concept of the Magic Weekend thrive if it staged Challenge Cup ties rather than pre-planned league fixtures? To visualise the concept I recreated the Challenge Cup draws for 2015 under this new format. Like any good Cup draw this was conducted by a current player, my son Edward, the Hull Dockers Under-10s loose forward. Between us we decided the winners of each tie drawn and it should be noted that each draw passed without incident and none of the numbers fell off the balls!
The result was, for the fourth round of the Challenge Cup, played as a Magic Weekend, the fixture schedule would have resembled something like this:
12.30 Bradford vs Dewsbury
2.45 Catalans vs Leeds
5.00 Salford vs Wigan
7.15 Castleford vs St Helens
12.30 Wakefield vs Whitehaven
2.45 Hull KR vs Leigh
5.00 Hull FC vs Warrington
7.15 Huddersfield vs Widnes
Currently the Magic Weekend fixtures are often local derbies and in the last three years five of the fixtures have been exactly the same. Therefore repeating the same matches offers a danger that the concept goes stale as people become bored of the same thing and the fact that under the new structures in 2015 clubs could play each other six times a year. Removing this as a league fixture at least reduces that possibility.
As attendances are rising at the Magic Weekend, will changing this format affect the numbers who come. Currently fans have to pay to go to watch this entertainment. It does not come as part of a season pass package and neither does attending current Challenge Cup games. Therefore, whilst many spectators seem unwilling to pay to watch the Cup they will pay to travel to places like Newcastle. The majority seem go because of what the weekend is and the atmosphere it generates, irrespective of who their team plays. The fixtures drawn above are just as exciting as any pre-chosen combination. Therefore would fans attend in the same numbers?
I believe there is no reason why the attendances would be any less significant under this new format. If some choose not to attend because their side is not playing against a particular team, any fall in ticket sales should be more than made up by the followers of the four extra teams who get a chance on the big stage, particularly if they are well supported like Bradford and Leigh. Because the matches are a one-off, do-or-die contest, the games may even be more intense than the league games and become more attractive to watch.
Although fans currently have the opportunity to buy Magic Weekend tickets once the fixtures are announced, there is still nothing to stop packages being sold to those who want to attend both days. The RFL would have the opportunity to make the draw for the Magic Weekend a big marketing event and they would still have two months to sell tickets for the games once the fixtures are known.
This revised structure also offers a big incentive to all non-Super League clubs. They all have the opportunity to qualify to play at a Magic Weekend, which is far bigger than the Summer Bash and a chance to test themselves, depending on the Cup draw, against the top clubs before the leagues split into eights. For fans of these clubs it also gives them a reason to attend the Magic Weekend. Currently they have to decide to either go, or stay and watch their own side who have a fixture on the same weekend.
These changes also have knock-on benefits for the game as a whole. Taking away the 23rd fixture in theory gives a blank weekend on the fixture list, so what should be done with this? There are various possibilities. The first one is to make the season start one week later or end seven days sooner, to the benefit of the players. Another option is to use it to create a representative weekend as they did recently down under, with matches between the four home nations, France and the England Knights. A third option could be to stage a Nines tournament involving all clubs, which could initially be held at Blackpool as compensation if the Summer Bash is taken away.
However a possibly more useful option would be to use it as a rest weekend. Once the 22 league matches are played, the Challenge Cup Semi Finals would be held. This could then be followed with a blank weekend. This would give the RFL more time to set the fixtures for the three leagues of 8, although a pre-set and fair fixture format would be preferable. Sky would have more time to decide which fixtures to show and clubs would have a longer period to sell tickets and sponsorship packages for games once they know when they are at home. Furthermore players have an additional week to prepare for these games, where even more is at stake than previously and even fans benefit by knowing that they can take a summer holiday then without missing any games.
While all of this seems to have great benefits for both the league and Cup competitions and the game overall, there would still be some difficulties which have to be overcome for this to happen. To begin with there could be broadcasting issues under the current deals. Sky currently show all of the Magic Weekend whilst they seem to share the showing of Challenge Cup games with the BBC. For the sport it would be better for the Beeb to still show some of these games and, say, the Catalans/ Leeds and Hull FC/ Warrington tie from the fixtures above appearing on terrestrial TV would be ideal, with Sky showing the remaining matches. Hopefully both broadcasters could resolve these issues.
How these changes would be viewed by the game’s current sponsors is unknown. I’m sure Ladbrokes would be more than happy for a Challenge Cup Round to be played as a Magic Weekend. However, are the additional league fixtures staged at such events a requirement as part of the sponsorship deals paid for by First Utility and Kingstone Press?
Also, are there any funding implications for clubs if these changes occurred? I’m unclear as to what financial benefits clubs currently gain by playing at the Magic Weekend. Similarly for Challenge Cup games, how are gate receipts split between the home side, the visitors or even centrally? These changes should be made so that no clubs suffer financially as a result.
One of the main consequences of these changes would be the loss of the Summer Bash weekend before it has had a chance to establish itself. If the Super League fixture format is to be made fair then likewise this additional 23rd Championship round also needs to go. As the inaugural event this May was deemed a success because the crowds exceeded 15,000. This seems a shame, but how much of a hit was it? Next season, with the possibility that say Salford and Wakefield could replace Bradford and Leigh in the Championship, attendances over the two days could struggle to reach 10,000. Would such a figure then be viewed as a triumph?
For anyone interested, my son and I continued with the Cup draws and we deemed that Hull FC beat Huddersfield in the final. Although a first win at Wembley may be a fantasy for any Hull FC fan, a fair and exciting league structure and thriving, magical, Challenge Cup competition should not be a dream which can’t come true for all Rugby League supporters, players and clubs. Hopefully these changes, if made soon, would go a long way to achieving this.