Is the Challenge Cup being let down by Poor Scheduling?
The Challenge Cup semi-finals are finally here! Leeds take on Warrington in a mouth-watering clash on Saturday, followed by an eagerly anticipated match on Sunday between two of the league’s surprise packages this season- Castleford and Widnes. Many people are hoping the outcome from this weekend’s matches will produce either a Yorkshire or Cheshire derby at Wembley in the final later this month, but any combination between two of the Super League’s top 8 sides should make for an entertaining final.
However, whilst attention this weekend turns to the semi-finals, you could easily be forgiven for forgetting how the 4 teams got there. The quarter-finals were held just over 2 months ago, and 8 rounds of Super League have been played since. The gap between the quarters and the semis should be long enough to whet the fans appetite, but 2 months is arguably too long. Whilst all 4 sets of fans will find their voice this weekend, you can’t help but feel that some of the intensity, interest and excitement of this year’s competition has been waned by the poor scheduling.
The 14 Super League sides joined this year’s competition in the 4th round after 7 Super League games had passed. Three rounds later, the Cup returned and then the quarter finals were contested 4 weeks after that. If momentum and intensity in the Cup had been building, the 9 weeks since has dissipated that feeling.
Even more bizarrely, the final is only 2 weeks away, giving fans limited time to purchase tickets, arrange transport and travel plans. With the final being played on a bank holiday weekend, some fans will opt to stay over for a couple of nights in the capital and aren’t given a lot of time to make plans due to the scheduling.
On the other hand, you could argue the Super League Grand Final is similar, and offers fans just one week to buy tickets and make plans. However, in a primarily northern sport, making travel arrangements for Old Trafford in Manchester is a lot easier for the majority of fans compared to London.
The competition’s scheduling also upset St Helens head coach Nathan Brown earlier this year who, after his side’s 32-12 5th round defeat to Leeds, was unhappy with having to play a cup match on the back of the Easter weekend double header.
Brown said at the time: “It is the worst possible time to play the next round of the Cup, the week after Easter. It is too much pressure. The RFL have done a lot of good stuff but the pumpkins are on when it comes to the scheduling. Either the Easter Monday game is not an important game or the Challenge Cup isn’t important.”
It hasn’t always been like this. Up until 2005, the Challenge Cup was a competition held in the early stages of the season, and it wasn’t uncommon for the first 2 games of each season to be Challenge Cup ties. The final was held between the end of April and the middle of May, and gave teams something to play for in the early part of the season.
The RFL changed the scheduling in 2005, with the first August Challenge Cup final being won by Hull FC in a dramatic 25-24 win over Leeds. The move was seen to help give the competition a more season-long approach, with the final corresponding with the climax of Super League.
It’s been confirmed by the RFL that the 2015 final will be played on the 29th of August, although it hasn’t yet been revealed when each round of the cup will be played.
The proposed expansion of the World Club Challenge means it’s best the Challenge Cup doesn’t revert back to the old, early season structure, but a change to the schedule is definitely needed. A round every 3 or 4 weeks would be a good solution, and hopefully maintain the interest, competitiveness and excitement that surrounds Rugby League’s most prestigious cup competition.