The distraction of next weekend

It’s pretty clear at the best of times that Sky Sports care little for the Challenge Cup. You wouldn’t expect them to spend too much time publicising a tournament for which they don’t own the primary television rights, but the frequent jibes at the expense of British rugby league’s showpiece are tiresome at best and very annoying at worst.

The latest episode came after it emerged that finalists Huddersfield Giants were to pick a weakened team in their engage Super League match with St Helens. The disappointment led commentator Eddie Hemmings to bemoan “the distraction of next weekend”, a comment of impenetrable stupidity. This particular distraction draws a bigger crowd, a bigger TV audience and possibly more media coverage than any other in British rugby league.

The disappointment over the Giants’ team selection is understandable: first versus third ought to have been one of the highlights of the Super League season. When Hemmings made his remark it looked for all the world as though Huddersfield would suffer a sixty- or seventy-point mauling at the hands of the Saints. They didn’t; in fact the young players excelled, and were unfortunate to end the game as the defeated side.

Hemmings has since apologised for his assumption that this would be a one-sided encounter, which is fair enough. But while his “lambs to the slaughter” remark was over the top he can hardly be blamed for thinking, as most onlookers did, that this was going to be something of a walkover. There was no apology for the “distraction” remark for one simple reason: that is what he, and Mike Stephenson, actually think of the Challenge Cup.    

The three-week gap between the semi finals and the main event is certainly a strangely short space of time, but Stephenson appears to be of the opinion that the cup final itself should be shunted back in the calendar so as not to interfere with the precious final few rounds of Super League.

As one of the more fanatical expansionists Stephenson would back the setting up of new professional clubs everywhere, but wants to marginalise the biggest drawing event of the rugby league season. We can’t afford to undermine the cup final; its importance demands its current positioning towards the end of the season. That’s why it was moved to August from the April/May slot it occupied since the switch to summer rugby.

Stephenson might argue – as he did at the time – that he wasn’t blaming Huddersfield, but rather the timing of the cup final during a crucial period of the Super League season.  However, striking the balance between competitions is all part of sport. The arguments of Hemmings and Stephenson make it seem as though they want to return to the non-competitive Corinthian ideals of the nineteenth century, when the rugby authorities in Lancashire refused to have a cup competition because of their fear of professionalism. It rings true: they’ve already successfully campaigned for the removal of promotion.

There are two things that I can agree with. Firstly, it was disappointing to see the St Helens-Huddersfield fixture not live up to its potential. However, if third-placed Huddersfield had been chasing top spot they would never have picked such a weak team; but they’re not chasing top spot, they’re already looking ahead to a Super League play-off series that will decide the champions.

Secondly, Stephenson points to the expense incurred by supporters when the cup final, the Grand Final and internationals come in quick succession. This is a very valid point, but it is Super League that has added such expensive trips such as the Magic Weekend and Catalans Dragons away games to the season.

Hopefully people will stop knocking the Challenge Cup, because if one day they succeed in subjugating it to Super League, rugby league may end up losing out.

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