Opinion: A Challenge Cup Revamp Would Work Wonders For English Rugby League
The Rugby League Challenge Cup Final has always been the sport’s showpiece event, with the Wembley final often producing some of the most memorable moments in the sport’s history. A flick back through the archives shows black and white footage of Challenge Cup finals gone by, with supporters often packed inside Wembley with a hope of witnessing history.
However, the competition is slowly losing its attraction, with English Super League clubs often targeting success in the league. Old Trafford doesn’t have the same history as Wembley, but clubs see winning the Grand Final as a bigger achievement, with the benefit of a World Club Challenge to follow.
Just because a Grand Final victory now appears to be a priority for some, that isn’t to say that the Challenge Cup has lost its entire attraction. Hull FC’s back to back successes in 2016 and 2017 made up for their disappointment in the Super League, whilst any of Leeds Rhinos’ ‘Golden Generation’ will admit how desperate they were to add a Challenge Cup winners medal to their collection.
Prior to 2014, Leeds hadn’t won the Challenge Cup since 1999, despite dominating Super League with the likes of Kevin Sinfield, Danny McGuire and Rob Burrow pulling the strings. The Rhinos were defeated in a number of finals in that time but eventually broke that duck against Castleford Tigers in 2014, producing a mammoth display to win 23-10.
What that did to Leeds in the league showed the emotion that surrounded their Challenge Cup victory, with Brian McDermott’s side failing to win a league game following that. However, you can almost certainly say that the Rhinos have prioritised the Super League in recent years, with their eight titles making them the competition's most decorated club.
The intensity of the Super League is what makes it such a priority for teams like Leeds, as the pride that comes with being the best side in the country over a 30+ game season ultimately trumps winning the Challenge Cup. The early rounds of the competition will see Super League clubs taking on sides filled with amateurs, but unlike football’s famous FA Cup ‘giant killings’, it is very rare you see a top-flight side knocked out by lower league opposition.
Again, there have been exceptions, even in the final, with Sheffield Eagles’ memorable win over Wigan Warriors still living long in the memory. However, apart from the final, the Challenge Cup early rounds are hardly something that will be entertaining rugby league fans in the Southern Hemisphere. Or at least not in the same way the State of Origin does on this side of the world.
Even for somebody who has never watched rugby league before in their life, seeing the athleticism, skill and sheer desire of a State of Origin match would be entertaining, with often nothing separating Queensland and New South Wales. How tight that competition can be is reflected in the Oddschecker betting market round-up, with New South Wales slight favourites at 1.75 to beat Queensland.
Would a Challenge Cup tie that doesn’t include two of the Super League’s top, top clubs be as entertaining to watch? It certainly wouldn’t for most neutrals.
Comparisons are often made between the British game and the Australian game, and how the former can start to match the latter in terms of entertainment, skill and quality of player. In the Southern Hemisphere, the Holden Cup (an under-20 competition) is the only other national competition beyond the State of Origin and NRL.
Rather than wasting time with one-sided Challenge Cup ties over the course of May, June and July, Australian teams, and of course, the New Zealand Warriors, are competing in the NRL, before the State of Origin takes centre stage midway through the season.
The intensity of those games in the Southern Hemisphere is often reflected when England face the likes of Australia in the international game, with the latter’s internationals mentally prepared for the big occasion, which might only come around once every two or three years for some in English rugby league.
There are factors to why the Challenge Cup is on a decline, when you consider the view that supporters have. The Rhinos might’ve longed for a winners medal, but they were never mocked for reaching a final and losing. However, Warrington Wolves, their domestic rivals, dominated the Challenge Cup between 2009 and 2012, but up until now have failed to come out on top in the Super League, despite reaching multiple Grand Finals.
Warrington’s supporters are often mocked for their failures in the league, which continues to haunt them. League Leaders' Shields have gone Warrington’s way, but the Grand Final remains the big prize that they crave.
The same can be said for Hull FC, who, since 2005, have enjoyed success in the Challenge Cup on three occasions but, like Warrington, the Super League trophy has eluded them. Of course, Lee Radford’s side have cherished their cup triumphs but, prior to the 2018 season, questions between the Hull coach and Scott Taylor brought up Grand Final success.
First of all, after a cruel 2017 defeat to Leeds, Radford and Taylor discussed how they could get beyond the semi-final stage in 2018, with the pair coming to the conclusion that they aren’t far away as an outfit. The answer to the following question is perhaps the biggest indicator that the cup has lost a little appeal.
Taylor asked Radford if he would trade retaining the Challenge Cup for a Super League Grand Final, with the Hull coach hardly hesitating in his answer of yes, before backtracking slightly to highlight the “unbelievable” feeling of lifting the cup.
The Challenge Cup still clearly means so much to players and coaches still, as Leeds’ success in 2014 showed. However, the Super League trophy that has eluded Hull and Warrington over the years, despite the two being so consistent, is clearly hurting both players and fans, who want to feel what it is like to be English champions.
By no means should the Challenge Cup be scrapped, as a competition with such history and tradition still needs to be celebrated. There are just other ways they can implement the competition.
Reformatting Super League is something the RFL have never been afraid to do, so why can’t they do the same with the Challenge Cup? Making the competition more intense, with more evenly matched teams going up against each other, will not only make for a better watch, but players would feel they have earned their success in a similar way to in the league.
A reformat could also benefit the England national side, as their players would be playing more high-intensity games, just as their counterparts do down under.