THIS week the RFL announced that the format of the Challenge Cup will be revamped, leading to the 12 Super League clubs joining a round early.

It has been welcomed by some, but this opinion piece explains why the move is a retrograde step.

“WE have to do something!”

That has been the constant refrain from supporters and pundits watching crowds for the Challenge Cup dwindle in recent years - from the early rounds through to the final, despite every effort to prop it up with an array of ticket initiatives.

And indeed, it was totally dispiriting to see a crowd of just 64,845 at Wembley Stadium for the Challenge Cup Finals day triple-header – despite being boosted by a healthy Wakefield attendance for their 1895 Cup set closer.

You can spin that Wembley figure any which way you wish – but for comparison the 1990 Challenge Cup Final between the same two sides pulled in 77,729.

More worrying for league should be the fact that on the same day as this year’s Wembley showpiece, across London rugby union’s Premiership Final between Northampton and Bath was the competition’s fastest ever sell-out with 82,000 packing into Twickenham.

Cost is a big factor - but it seems like the old days of the participating towns emptying on the morning of the match by jumping on fleets of readily available coaches have long gone.

 Those union fans at the Twickenham finale also had to pay for tickets, trains, buses and accommodation - but the cost of living crisis has probably bitten significantly harder into rugby league heartlands.  

So yes, something has to be done to revive interest in what was always rugby league’s showpiece occasion.

But that move to “do something” by bringing in the 12 Super League sides a round earlier is a retrograde step that will create more problems without addressing a single reason as to why crowds at every stage of the competition are on the wane.

It seems bizarre when we talk about limiting game time for player welfare, and then ask our elite players – who play too many games in comparison to the NRL – to play another one.

The road to hell is paved with good intentions, as they say, and the idea behind is a well-meaning attempt to bind the different wings of the rugby league family together and throw up something beyond the norm.

The reasoning is laudable enough on paper - giving 12 of the 20 qualifying clubs from the Championship, League 1 and Community game a home draw against a Super League side.

The other eight non-Super League sides will face each other for a place in the last 16, where they will have their own opportunity for a plum tie.

These David v Goliath ties, goes the argument, will give the players and supporters of those lower league sides a highlight of coming up against one of the game’s giants.

And as a by-product, those clubs will hope to boost their coffers with a bigger than normal gate courtesy of the intrigue and the travelling fans.

From the Super League supporters’ point of view, it enables ground-hoppers to tick off a ground away from the well-worn beaten top-flight track.

Now that is all great in theory, but in practice it is a completely different thing. Take off the rose-tinted specs and put away the ‘Interesting things to see and do in York/Cornwall/Keighley’ guidebook and take a peep into the very recent past.

For a start, that guidebook will have to be winter-proof as those grounds will be visited in February, not a sunny April or May, and already those folk who are still drying out from Stalybridge’s rain-lashed Bower Fold in 2002 are having flashbacks.

And secondly, as we have seen relatively recently with numerous ties, the lower league clubs will switch venues if more financially lucrative to do so scuppering the ground-hoppers’ hopes.


How the Challenge Cup worked last time this was tried

A couple of things jump out from those last couple of seasons prior to 2015, when all the Super League sides last went into the draw for the last 32.

The first is the obvious numbers of one-sided encounters, with for example, Wigan putting 98 points past North Wales Crusaders in their tie of 2012 and Warrington walloping Swinton by 112.

Fans are not daft – it is hard enough to season ticket holders to pay for ‘their’ seat for knock out games and won’t readily pay to watch mismatches.

The actual crowd figures in black and white confirm that there was very little interest in those early round fixtures no matter how much folk romanticise about them.

For a spell the gates were so dire that they gave a free pass to season ticket holders for the opening round – and then that created an issue for the all-pay next round as always happens when you give your product away.

Rugby league is in danger of loving the game to death with the way it tries to keep everyone on board, whilst watching the product decline and it’s cut through with a wider audience diminish in comparison to other sports.

It is important to keep the whole game together, but the 1895 Cup should be a way of compensating the Championship and League 1 clubs and giving them a chance of getting to Wembley that has closed off due to the gulf between the top sides and the second tier.

So what is to be done about the Challenge Cup?

The poor cup crowds are not something that purely afflicts the Wembley showpiece – so the final venue is not the issue, although allowing people time to pay for it is.

The Challenge Cup would go into a downward spiral if it were to permanently move away from the national stadium and start ground-hopping around more suitably sized stadia. We would start off at Tottenham but end up at Huddersfield.

That is a one-way ticket to becoming a John Player Trophy Mark II and we know how that ended up.

Instead, the Challenge Cup organisers need the fans to buy in and engage with the cup from the outset, if they don’t they are not going to be invested in it by the time Wembley comes around.

Rugby league has never addressed the issue of all-pay games, namely season ticket holders don’t particularly like paying for cup games. It is the same with play-off matches.

As a result you have situations like this year when 15,284 packed into Headingley for Saints’ Super League game with Leeds in March – with only 7,108 turning up for the Challenge Cup tie the week later.

When that happens, TV viewers see a swath of empty seats and draw the conclusion that it is not a competition or sport worth watching and switch off.


Challenge Cup needs a radical solution to save it

The game needed to grasp the nettle far more robustly on this one instead of continuing to crack open even more eggshells to tip-toe around.

It needs a radical solution – not a tinkering at the edges and a dollop of something that has already tried and failed.

For me, we should kill two birds with one stone with the Challenge Cup, even if it will absolutely appal traditionalists.

We should accept that the 1895 Cup is the route to Wembley for all non-Super League Clubs and the Challenge Cup should become a competition exclusively for the top-flight.

By doing this the Challenge Cup could become a group competition involving the 12 Super League clubs. Have three groups of four, with every club guaranteed one home game and the final round of group games effectively replacing Magic by playing them at the same neutral venue.

Each group winner, plus the best placed runner up go out of the three, goes into the knockout semis.

The home games, as they are guaranteed to be played, would be counted on the season ticket – and as a result the crowds and atmosphere will be much bigger and better – and look far more appealing on TV.

If you are a fan that has actually been to the Group games then you are more likely to be more invested in the comp through to the semis and final.

By using this format we could take out three Super League loop fixtures without a loss of income – something that has proven a tough financial nut to crack in discussions between IMG and the clubs.

It is a radical departure from what a knockout cup should look like, but we have to be honest and truthful about the downward spiral the cup has been in this past 20 odd years and rectify it.

Einstein was probably not a rugby league fan, but if he were here looking at this week's developments he would surely remark: “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results.”