Leave the Challenge Cup alone

The Challenge Cup fourth round has passed with a record number of points and calls to change the format of the great competition.

It wouldn’t quite be the Challenge Cup (or rugby league in fact) if there wasn’t something to moan about. Whether it be attendances, lopsided scorelines or the BBC’s coverage of it, the Challenge Cup always seems to generate debate.

First of all, Jamie Peacock’s outrageous claim that the gap between Super League and the Championship is closing needs nipping in the bud. It’s never been so big. It’s certainly bigger now than before licensing was introduced, when the likes of Hull KR, Castleford and Widnes were all able to compete against Super League sides a few years ago. The Championship salary cap has since decreased by 25% and the gap continues to increase.

Leigh did exceptionally well against Catalan on Friday, no doubt riding on the high that has seen them avoid defeat in every game this season before that one, while the slope at Batley is a great leveller, and something of a culture shock to a Huddersfield team that hasn’t been quite right since Nathan Brown’s sensational outburst following the win at Leeds.

Halifax pushed a poor Bradford side pretty much all the way, but Fax are one of those teams who will score a good few points against anybody, the problem is they’ll concede usually just as many, if not more, as has been the case for much of this season.

So all in all, 13 Super League teams made it through to the last 16, with Crusaders the unlucky ones to miss out, courtesy of being involved in the only all-Super League tie of the fourth round, a 30-20 defeat against Leeds.

It has led for calls to change the format of the competition, apparently to give the Championship teams a better chance of progression. Why? Do we want Championship teams appearing in the final? The reason why Super League teams go further in this competition is because they are the best teams in the competition.

Take football’s FA Cup. There have been very few instances in the past decade where a team outside the “big four” has reached the final, but in reality now, the Challenge Cup is a realistic target for any Super League club. We’ve seen Hull, Catalan, Huddersfield and Warrington, all outside the traditional “big four” of the Super League era reach or win finals in recent years.

I’ve seen suggestions that Championship sides should play each other, or the draw should be seeded so the Super League teams all have to play each other. Others say Super League teams should start at round one (quite how that would work, I’m not sure, considering the raft of amateur teams who enter the competition – will they then get byes?) or by the other extreme, join the competition later on (one fan got so confused by his need for change that he suggested Super League teams enter at the quarter-final stage, but sadly 14 into 8 doesn’t go).

Another suggestion is that Championship sides host Super League teams at home, with the lower league team keeping gate receipts. The issue with this is that only recently have the RFL introduced free entry to all season ticket holders at their first Challenge Cup match of the season – this initiative was brought in to boost the flagging attendances at this stage of the competition, and it’s fair to say it has done just that. To reverse this now would be a little stupid.

The Challenge Cup should remain as a random draw. We were perhaps a little unfortunate in that regard this year, as the Super League teams in the main managed to stay apart, but if there’s any tinkering to do within the sport to bring Super League and the rest closer, it certainly doesn’t need to involve a change in the greatest cup competition of them all.

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