The Challenge Cup is the grand old lady of Rugby League with many arguing she is in need of a little Botox and a Twitter account. There have been calls to revamp the competition over the last few years with the view to bringing the competition into line with the modern world but I don't know whether the combination of old and new will work with the game's oldest relic. Maybe the calls to revamp the Cup have been created in the media to fill column inches following one sided games during the rounds building up to the jewel in the crown which is the Wembley final? Or is it a swelling of public opinion asking for change? I am not sure, but I do believe that we started to question the value of the Cup in line with the demise of the deemed reduced value attached to the FA Cup.
Is the concept of the Cup competition dying in England? Or is it being killed off by the highly commercialised league competitions they are lined up against?
I will say that the Challenge Cup is done very few favours by the game at the moment, it's placed just 6 weeks before the Grand Final and the end of the season. We have almost 30 weeks with no silverware then a congested 6 week period of big games. The Cup's proximity to the Grand Final, I believe, undermines the impact the Cup has within the media and also and more importantly the psyche of the fans. Almost immediately after the trophy has been lifted and the BBC cameras are packed away the sport's focus is switched back to the Grand Final. Not only is the attention taken away from the Cup but also the fans' pockets are being hit hard in a period coming towards the end of an expensive summer holiday with the potential outlay for Playoff and Grand Final tickets. For the Cup to recapture its "magic" it has to be moved to earlier in the calendar and allow the old lady to be rolled out , celebrated and left to absorb the Sun for a while rather than being rushed back indoors for another 12 months. It spreads the financial burden of the fans and lets us celebrate the Cup with a genuine build up and also a post final reflection.
People talk about the magic of the Cup and I always sit back and wonder what that is. Is it the history or tradition of the competition? Or is the magic the chance to be crowned champions and being able to celebrate your teams glory?
I have thought long and hard about this (difficult to imagine I know) and have come to the conclusion that the magic of the Cup is hope. Hope is the spark that fuels the Challenge Cup and any other short knock out competitions in sport. The magic is your mind's ability to dream and for many teams' players and fans it's the opportunity, despite being underdogs, to achieve something very special. The Super League is dragged out over 27 rounds, so it's a slow burner and you can see the result crawling towards you. The Challenge Cup can mean a chance to play at Wembley after 3 or 4 good performances and every side that makes the quarter-finals allows their minds to wander towards the final. Hope is not the only magic the Cup posseses. Very much like the Olympic Games, inspiration has to be part of the Cup's magic. In 1997 I walked down Wembley way as a 13 year old, face painted and watched Saints beat the Bradford Bulls. I was inspired by the vibrant atmosphere, the colours, sights and sounds. That trip in 1997 was the last time I absorbed the atmosphere as a fan and this year in 2012 I did it again and I realised that despite my achievements in the game, 4 cup final winners medals amongst them, that my natural reaction could not be tempered by winning the Cup as a player. My stomach still flipped and goosebumps shot down my neck and low and behold 15 years later the excitement I felt as a 13 year old was there again.
I don't want to see the Challenge Cup change at all, barring the scheduling. I love it just how it is. It signifies a part of my life as man and boy. 'Abide with me', 'Jerusalem' and all the routine that comes with it give the Cup its strong identity. Mess with that and you lose something that is unrepairable and priceless. It takes generations to develop the character the Challenge Cup has and in all honesty the Grand final has struggled over time but seems to be finding its identity and time will only help develop that.
The Cup is like a Georgian Town house and the Grand Final is a flash new apartment block. It's a matter of taste as to which you prefer - one is a timeless classic with class and panache; the other in your face , practical and with the potential to become timeless. There is without doubt plenty of room for both to exist and blossom.