This afternoon we heard the Challenge Cup semi-final draw on BBC Radio Five. Well, maybe you did – I was on my way to an exam at the time, but never mind. The draw pitted holders Warrington Wolves against Les Catalans Dragons, and, in a mouth-watering tie, Leeds Rhinos against St Helens. The Challenge Cup often provides a few talking points, and the semi-final stage is no exception. These are just a few of those points.
Firstly, why was the cup draw held at 1.50pm on a Wednesday? This is a personal gripe really, a fact for which I make no apologies, because it meant that the draw took place, as I mentioned, as I was on my way to an exam. I just don’t understand why the draw couldn’t have taken place on the BBC after Sunday’s Bradford-Warrington game, rather than at a completely random time in the middle of the week when most people aren’t going to be able to listen. It would at least have stopped me wondering whether Leeds and Saints had avoided each other when I should have been thinking about the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
Secondly, why is it that, the quarter finals being played on the last weekend in May, we now have to wait until August for the semi-finals to take place? Part of the reason for the cup final being moved into August instead of April was so it could be paced properly throughout the season, rather than having all the rounds crammed together as though we found the cup somehow embarrassing wanted it out the way as quickly as possible. Yet we’ll now have a two-month gap between the quarter-finals and the semis and just three weeks between the semis and the final at Wembley. That will be quite disruptive to the Super League season, and we don’t want Eddie and Stevo weeping salty tears of bitterness like they did last year.
Thirdly, it would be good if we could do something different with staging the semi finals instead of enlisting the same venues each year. I can’t help but think – as many have suggested – the Challenge Cup semi finals should be staged as a double-header. In 2008 a Saints-Leeds semi-final drew 19,842 and in 2007 a Wigan-Catalans semi-final, comparable to this year’s Warrington-Catalans tie, drew 10,218. If you combine those attendances you get just over 30,000, so a double-header could work as an eye-catching rugby league event (and at least the attendance would be real, unlike the fictional 52,043 that reportedly packed out Murrayfield last month).
Choosing the right venue could be a bit tricky – the aggregate crowd figures would rule out both the Galpharm and the DW Stadium – but there are plenty of stadiums to choose from, especially during off-season in the soccer. The City of Manchester Stadium was one suggestion, although with a capacity of 47,726 there would be more than a few empty seats. Bramall Lane in Sheffield was apparently on the cards this time around – Sheffield Eagles chairman Ian Squire certainly wanted that to happen – and going on size alone it would be a suitable venue. With the right set of circumstances the RFL could seriously hope to sell out the 32,702-capactity stadium for a semi-final double-header.
The only real problem would be if the BBC were to refuse to show the semi-final games back-to-back. We’ve already seen how television rules, rightly or wrongly, when Leeds were unable to move their quarter-final game against Wigan and avoid playing at the same time as a County Cricket match which saw the Headingley capacity reduced to 10,000 (incidentally, the cricket was rained off anyway). The BBC’s attitude could cause problems if the RFL wanted to pursue the possibility of staging a double-header. After all we have to be nice to BBC television as they treat our sport so well, and in no way restrict the viewing of Super League to a purely regional audience.
Lastly, and apologies for being biased, but a St Helens-Warrington cup final would be fantastic. I was kind of hoping for it last year (even though I was more than impressed with the way Huddersfield beat Saints). If some of the recent games between Saints and Warrington were replicated on the Wembley stage it would be one of the classic Challenge Cup finals.
Keep Your Eye on Rugby League