Rugby league opinion: Challenge Cup poses key questions

St Helens' Jon Wilkin (left) and Warrington Wolves' Chris Hill during the media launch of the 2015 Magic Weekend at St James' Park, Newcastle
St Helens' Jon Wilkin (left) and Warrington Wolves' Chris Hill during the media launch of the 2015 Magic Weekend at St James' Park, Newcastle

Amidst all the excitement surrounding the launch of the Super 8s, it is as if the Challenge Cup has suddenly crept back onto the scene virtually unnoticed.

This weekend’s semi-finals are in danger of being over-shadowed by the climax to the regular Super League season and Wednesday’s unveiling of the fixtures for the next stage, culminating in the new-look road to Old Trafford and the intriguing battle to avoid relegation.

The clash highlights the need for another look at the Cup and a way to put the shine back on the famous old trophy, which is still held dear among the traditionalists which include St Helens captain Jon Wilkin.

“When I was a kid and running around in the garden pretending I was a certain player, it was always in the Challenge Cup final,” he said.

“I was passing and kicking balls to my imaginary friends on the turf at Wembley.”

Wilkin is among a growing number of critics who believe the Cup final should be restored to its traditional slot in May, thereby providing a showpiece event early in the season and allowing the build-up to the Grand Final to take precedence through the final two months.

“It’s important not to neglect a competition with such history and heritage and allow it to be diluted by an agenda to support Super League or sell out a Grand Final,” said Wilkin, who will miss Friday’s first semi-final against Leeds with a broken thumb but is expected to be available for the August 29 final if Saints are successful.

“That is flawed I think.

“To get the Cup back to where it has been then, for me, it needs re-scheduling to May.

“In August, there is a financial burden on families who have already paid for Magic Weekend and have the play-offs, plus season-ticket renewals to consider.

“The quicker we get back to that, the better.”

The Cup is breaking new ground this year with the first semi-final to be played in front of a live television audience on a Friday night and the tie at Warrington’s Halliwell Jones Stadium provides an excellent opportunity for rugby league to attract new fans.

Eastenders regularly attracts an audience of five million viewers and, if only a fifth of them take up the invitation to switch over to BBC2 at the end of the programme, rugby league will be able to boast record figures for a match outside the final.

It would be nice to think the Halliwell Jones Stadium will be packed to the rafters to present a fitting backdrop to what promises to be a wonderful match but pre-sales suggest the crowd will be well below the 15,000 capacity, with Leeds fans perhaps deterred by the prospect of a dash along the M62 through Friday night traffic and appealed instead by the prospect of a comfortable armchair.

Attendances for the Challenge Cup continue to be a worry and officials were mightily relieved - on a crowd level at least - when Catalans Dragons, whose fans simply do not travel, were knocked out at the quarter-final stage.

Perhaps it is time to stage both semi-finals back-to-back on a big stage in order to raise the profile of the competition.

Newcastle’s St James’ Park would provide an ideal venue following the success of the Magic Weekend earlier in the year while Manchester’s Etiahad would presumably also be available at this time of the year.

Instead of playing to crowds of 12,000 which witnessed last year’s semi-finals, the RFL could organise a day-long carnival of rugby league which would surely draw a 30,000-plus attendance and give the Cup the prominence it deserves.