Talking Rugby League: Where has the magic of the Challenge Cup gone?

THE Challenge Cup is the oldest trophy in Rugby League, having been contested annually since the first final in 1897.

For much of the game’s history it was regarded as the premier trophy because of the Challenge Cup Final being held at Wembley. It would regularly draw crowds of more than 80,000 and sometimes 90,000 to the capital for an event that, during the old winter season, was usually held in early May, very often in the week before the Championship Final, which also drew very large crowds when it was played at football grounds or venues such as Odsal Stadium.

Challenge Cup matches right from the first round used to draw higher crowds than regular-season matches as supporters’ interest was piqued by the possibility of their club going to Wembley.

But in recent years the crowds for Challenge Cup games, including the final, have fallen away, with attendances for successive rounds of the competition having fallen significantly below the crowds for regular-season matches, sometimes to as little as a third of a club’s average league crowd.

Reasons for the decline

When analysing the decline, it is important not to confuse causes and symptoms, particularly in relation to the decline in attendances.

Falling attendances are a symptom of the malaise, not the cause of it.

If we are to understand why the Challenge Cup has lost the prestige, and therefore the attraction that it used to have, then we have to look deeper at the causes.

In order to do that we should begin by examining the rationale underlying the Challenge Cup competition and what functions it performs.

The functions of the Challenge Cup

Historically the Challenge Cup was competed for by 32 clubs (often by 30 professional clubs and two invited amateur clubs) in a straight knockout format.

In the old winter season, which usually began in mid-August and ran until early May the following year, the first round of the Challenge Cup would be played in mid-February, some six months into the season, and three successive rounds would be played fortnightly, with perhaps three weeks to the semi-finals and a longer gap to the final.

The timing and format served eight important purposes.

First, the fact that the Challenge Cup was introduced late in the season gave new hope to clubs that had little chance of winning the Championship title by that stage. To the supporters, it was a new competition that all clubs had, at that stage, an equal chance of winning and they would eagerly await the draw for the first round of the competition. It gave clubs a massive stimulus at a crucial time of the season.

Second, the fact that the successive rounds of the competition were organised at fortnightly intervals built up momentum for the Challenge Cup, with an increasing sense of anticipation as clubs progressed through the rounds.

Third, the open draw meant that big clubs could be drawn against each other as early as the first round and in most years there were clashes of this sort that would whet the appetite, while the smaller clubs were given a chance to progress when they were drawn against each other.

Fourth, it meant that a much wider range of clubs could reach the Challenge Cup Final than the Championship (now the Grand) Final. For example, in 1967 Featherstone Rovers (20th out of 30 teams that season) defeated Barrow (15th) 17-12 in the Challenge Cup Final. That would have been equivalent to Halifax Panthers (20th) defeating Bradford Bulls (15th) in the 2023 Challenge Cup Final.

Fifth, the Challenge Cup Final being played the week before the Championship Final gave us a tremendous climax to the season, with two major finals on successive Saturdays consolidating Rugby League’s place in the sporting psyche, with both attracting huge crowds and generating great publicity. The fact that the Cup Final was usually played first inevitably directed more attention to the forthcoming Championship Final.

Sixth, the Challenge Cup Final was a day to celebrate Rugby League Football in a general sense and it attracted supporters from all the clubs that took part in the competition, not just the two competing clubs.

Seventh, the regular slot in the annual calendar in early May allowed supporters to plan their visits to Wembley a year ahead. Fans tend to be creatures of habit and the fixed date in the calendar exploited this tendency.

Eighth, the Challenge Cup gave smaller clubs the opportunity to be drawn against bigger clubs that they might not otherwise play and it gave them the chance to generate a major financial injection from the big crowds that would be generated for Cup games.

The functions blurred

Let’s now have a look at how those functions, one by one, have been blurred or even eliminated.

First, the Challenge Cup is now introduced early in the season and doesn’t provide the stimulus that it used to do at a time when every club throughout the competitions is focused on doing well in the league.

Second, the intervals between rounds are too great for the competition to build up momentum.

Third, the Super League clubs now enter the competition at the last 16 stage, not at the last 32.

Fourth, the later entry of Super League clubs to the competition severely limits the prospects of lower clubs progressing to the latter stages of the competition.

Fifth, the Challenge Cup Final is now played during the season, not at the end of it, which damages both the Cup Final and the Grand Final by reducing the apparent importance of the former.

Sixth, because of the above factors, we no longer have significant numbers of supporters from non-competing clubs attending the Challenge Cup Final, which goes some way towards explaining the decline in Cup Final crowds.

Seventh, and unlike the Grand Final, there is now no set slot in the calendar that allows fans to automatically tick off the relevant weekend in the calendar.

Eighth, the entry of Super League clubs in the last 16 of the competition has taken away the prospect for many lower clubs of benefitting from a draw against a bigger club.

In next week’s League Express, and in the light of this analysis, I will examine how the Challenge Cup can be restored to its former glory.