SAINTS start their Challenge Cup campaign on Friday at home to Championship 1 minnows York City Knights.

Along with all the other top eight sides, Keiron Cunningham's men leap-frogged the previous round.

This means, assuming they avoid a monumental upset against the Minstermen – the lowest ranked team left in the competition – Saints would only have to win two more games to return to Wembley for the first time since 2008.


Well not quite. Especially as the same thought is going through the minds of every other top eight side, apart from Leeds and Huddersfield who had the misfortune to draw each other.

This year’s systematic round by round weeding out of amateur, Championship 1, Championship and then bottom four Super League clubs may have reduced the number of games those elite teams play en route to the Challenge Cup Final, but it closes off any soft route to Wembley.

Without being disrespectful, barring any major shocks - such as Dewsbury beating Warrington - the lowest ranked team in the quarter final will be the winners of the intriguing Wakefield Trinity v Leigh Centurions tussle.

There is unlikely to be any easy options or blow-out scores there, and even less so in the semi finals.

So this argument that it has made it easier does not hold water.

What it does, however, is make it harder for those outside the big four to make it through to Wembley.

One of the positive elements of an all-in, unseeded knockout competition has been the way the finalists can get through in a way they cannot do in the Super League play-offs.

The fact that recent finals have included Castleford, Huddersfield and Catalans, with the likes of Widnes daring to dream one step away, underlines that point.

Rugby league has changed in the Super League era. When, for example, Featherstone Rovers shocked everyone by winning the Challenge Cup in 1983 they did not take a soft route to success.

A hard fought win over Saints at Knowsley Road in the quarters and triumph over Ellery Hanley’s Bradford Northern in the semis paved the way for a shock Wembley win over the Hull FC team of all talents.

The new format, given the way the top teams are so much stronger, makes such a repeat tougher – but not impossible.

The intensity of the last eight will make for six tough, compelling games ahead of the finale at Wembley.

In making the change the game's rulers have closed one area of weakness that meant the cup largely got off to a half-cock start.

But that is only part of the battle.

One of the biggest bugbears for supporters of the Challenge Cup is the way that it loses momentum with the gaps between the rounds. Six weeks between Round 6 and the quarters, five weeks up until the semis and then four weeks to the final on August 29.

Is it not time to bring the Challenge Cup forward, away from the school holidays, and allow the sport’s most historic competition to build some early season momentum away from what will be an even busier end of season programme?