Why the Challenge Cup is still special as amateurs prepare for first round

BOOK your seats for the Wembley extravaganza, on the second weekend of June, now!

My advice is, I think, timely, as the first round of the Challenge Cup is taking place this weekend, with the final set for Saturday, June 8 as the pinnacle of a terrific day which will also involve the Steven Mullaney Memorial Boys Year 7 final, the Women’s Challenge Cup decider and the 1895 Cup final.

Tickets can be bought online from £15 (adults) and £7.50 (under 16s) while family packages are also available, starting from £18.75 for one adult and two under 16s.

That’s tremendous value although I’m hopefully not talking out of turn in asserting that none of the 20 teams taking part in the opening stage this Saturday and Sunday will make it through to Wembley. So, no disrespect intended, they might as well avail themselves of the RFL’s generous packages right now!

I could be proved wrong, of course, but it’s telling that Betfred’s website doesn’t, as far as I can see anyway, even offer any odds on any of the amateur sides setting foot on the Challenge Cup trail in a few days’ time making it all the way.

Not that any of those clubs will be bothered. For me, the RAF’s chairman Michael Burch summed it up superbly when he said: “Royal Air Force Rugby League, and indeed the UK Armed Forces as a whole, have a long and treasured tradition of being part of the Challenge Cup.

“There has long been a close relationship between the Armed Forces and the Rugby Football League with longstanding representation on the RFL Community Board and a former president of Royal Air Force Rugby League, Air Commodore Dean Andrew, holding the honorary Rugby Football League president appointment in 2016 and 2017.

“Another former president of UK Armed Forces and Royal Air Force Rugby League, Air Chief Marshal The Lord Stuart Peach, has also previously presented the Challenge Cup.

“And the custom of conducting a unique tribute to ‘fallen heroes’ at the Cenotaph in London as part of the Challenge Cup final weekend further highlights the close bond and relationship that participation by Royal Navy, British Army and Royal Air Force teams in this historic competition is based on.”

You can’t assess the value of the Challenge Cup better than that.

The excitement for all but a handful of clubs taking part in the tournament in 2024 is, in truth, in the thrill of the chase, and in progressing as far as they can (like York Acorn, pictured above, who played Bradford at Odsal in the third round last year).

In fact, lifting the silverware is perhaps only part of it. As a Hunslet supporter (I may have mentioned that before) I was tremendously excited when, in 1964, we were installed as the bookies’ favourites to win the competition. 

Sadly (for us) underdogs Oldham shattered our hopes in the quarter-finals, but even though we reached Wembley twelve months later – losing to Wigan in a classic – being the most fancied side in 1964 was very special for an eleven-year-old local lad and the memory remains vivid.

It may well be that, along the line, there will be pre-teens in 2024 who will have, and will – as I did – continue to cherish a similar experience.

I wish all the sides taking part in the first round the best of luck (and implore them to send me match reports on Saturday tea-time, as required by the RFL).

And I also wish maximum reflected glory on their respective leagues, on which subject I understand that, despite reminders, the RFL continues to describe Fryston – who are at home to the Army – as representing the Yorkshire Men’s League.

They are not, they have qualified for the Challenge Cup via the Pennine League – and I’m happy to set the record straight on that.