Off the Ball: You still can't beat the Challenge Cup and Wembley

Vince Karalius collecting the Challenge Cup at Wembley in 1961

Vince Karalius collecting the Challenge Cup at Wembley in 1961

First published in News
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SO THERE we have it – Leeds’ generation of golden boys have broken their Challenge Cup hoodoo and taken the first pot of the season.

It won’t go down as a classic, but it was good to see a small town like Castleford get their day in the Wembley limelight.

The day underlined what I love about the Challenge Cup – a competition packed with history, romance and a little bit of heartache.

Although a lot of emphasis has been spent lodging the Super League Grand Final into the psyche of the sport’s followers, the Challenge Cup retains the prestige, tradition and glamour.

It is 40 years since I watched my first Challenge Cup Final on telly – and still remember my mam rushing me back from Preedy’s with my Marvel comic to get back in time for what she always called Wembley Cup.

She tried to sell the game to me by telling me that it was between two “dirty teams” – she was not wrong and Warrington and Featherstone went at it hammer and tongs from early on.

So like many households across the north – irrespective of who was in the final – rugby league’s day at Wembley was always one of the sporting centrepieces of the year – a crown jewel.

Saturday raised a couple of questions. Admittedly it did not look great seeing many of the ‘Club Wembley’ and some top tier seats unoccupied, but someone asked on Twitter whether Wembley was now too big.

Too big? There were more than 77,000 there on Saturday – a figure 11,000 greater than the crowd at last year’s Super League Grand Final.

But we should not be blind to some problems and bug bears that the fans are raising.

There are a couple of big factors affecting the gates in the cup. The first big one is scheduling with the comp meandering through the year with irregular gaps taking a lot of the momentum out of the knockout contest.

The second one is the short turnaround between the semi-final and final, which hardly gives the participating towns time to milk the Wembley trip.

The third one is holidays – both the semis and final are in the middle of the school holiday season. And to make matters worse the bank holiday weekend is largely used to carry out maintenance on the West Coast mainline making it a nightmare to travel to.

So let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water with regards to the Challenge Cup and talk it into a decline, but at the same time it is high time it was moved back to May.

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