Forty-20 magazine editors Tony Hannan and Phil Caplan wrestle over the thorny issue of the timing of the Challenge Cup final…
The Challenge Cup is, was and hopefully always will be a jewel in Rugby League’s crown.
Ignore the deluded few who preach that it no longer deserves its spot in our 21st century calendar.
The day we ditch a competition of such rich and varied heritage is the day the last one to leave should turn out the lights.
For all its obvious faults, the Challenge Cup is a direct line to our roots. It retains prestige in the eyes of the national media.
And like football’s FA Cup, its inclusivity for big clubs and small promotes a ‘one game’ philosophy – we all of us belong.
It may be a wild-eyed dream that a community club like Pilkington Recs could nowadays make the final.
Yet, theoretically at least, when they set out on the ‘road to Wembley’ it is the same road travelled as 12-time winners St Helens.
And what is sport without dreams anyway?
None of which is to deny that – as with the FA Cup – the glamour and profile have dipped in recent years.
But rather than throw the silverware out with the muddy bathwater, we simply need to give the good old Cup a scrub.
I’ll let others debate the best structure – though one-sided results are the least of it, if the comp as a whole has appeal.
And next year’s big shake-up does offer an ideal opportunity to revamp the Cup for the modern era.
But its biggest problem is relatively straightforward to put right. Namely, a disjointed schedule and the date of the final itself.
Standardise weekly or fortnightly rounds at the start of the year – perhaps via the return of televised midweek Floodlit RL – and stage the final in May.
Britain today is in love with big events … Glastonbury, Eurovision et al … with sport no exception, as we saw in RLWC2013.
So let’s spread our eye-catching festivals right across the campaign, rather than bung everything on simultaneously at season’s end.
In harsh economic times, that’s easier on the pockets of fans, too.
When it comes to the Challenge Cup, May was always the merriest month and it can be again.
Never mind the oft-trotted out adage, ‘it’s not how you start it’s how you finish’, with regard to the placing of the Challenge Cup in the soon-to-be even more overburdened schedule: ‘it’s where you start not when you finish’.
All this talk of moving it back to May to accommodate the brave new world of 2015 misses a couple of main points.
Firstly, that the end of the campaign is when most trophies are given out.
The grinning winners have come through the stiffest of tests to claim their crowns.
Pre-Super League – and, yes, the rugby landscape has changed immensely over the last near 20 years – used to see the Challenge Cup and Championship finals taking place on consecutive weekends. There was no doubting the absolute merit of any side doing the double.
The argument goes that moving it back gives the season a better fit with something to play for early on and then a chance to regroup and challenge again for the other tin pot.
Unless, of course, you are a mid-table side and knocked out early when your season could effectively be over before the daffodils are out – so much for more meaningful games.
Late August is fine for the Cup final, providing the competition doesn’t start until June and is much more concertinaed to gain momentum. That’s the real issue.
And the other one is that the chance of a genuine giant-killing in the later stages is now virtually impossible until, at least, there is more money in the sport and a proper evening up of resources and a greater reservoir of playing talent.
What we cannot afford are more semi-finals like last year – Wigan’s 80-0 trouncing of a side in their division and an embarrassment that the famous old competition does not deserve.
This season we have effectively seen the germination of a Super League Cup anyway. Add the four best non-SL sides to those 12 and at the same time run what was the Northern Rail Cup for all those outside the top flight.
And, if you want to guarantee an August Bank Holiday sell-out, play the respective finals as a double-header in the Wembley sunshine.
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