There’s a feeling around the game this could be Leeds Rhinos’ year in the Tetley’s Challenge Cup.
The competition has become as much of a millstone for Rhinos as it is their Holy Grail. They last won it 15 years ago today, after a 21-year wait. Since then, incredibly, they have appeared in six finals and lost them all. In the same period they have reached seven Super League Grand Finals and won six.
The Challenge Cup means a lot to Leeds’ current group of players, none of whom has won it in Rhinos colours. With many of the key men now at the veteran stage, time is running out.
Rhinos have approached the Challenge Cup this year like they mean business, thrashing Wakefield Trinity Wildcats 60-6 in the fourth round and backing up with an impressive 32-12 success at home to St Helens last weekend.
Though nobody in the camp is saying their name’s on the Cup – or even thinking that – a home quarter-final against Leigh Centurions should see them through to the last four and anything can happen from there.
Rhinos’ form over the first three months of the campaign has made them favourites for Wembley glory, but there are no guarantees, particularly under the current format.
This column has been pressing for the Challenge Cup final to be returned to an earlier date in the calendar almost ever since it was switched to August, nine years ago.
The change has not worked and the competition in its current slot is failing. Fans will turn up to meaningful ties, as the gate of more than 12,000 at Headingley Carnegie last weekend proved. But generally the Cup now fails to capture the public imagination until the final and the days of selling that out are long gone.
Various solutions have been proposed, for example seeding Super League clubs and ensuring they are away to lower league opposition in their opening tie, but that would fundamentally affect the nature of the tournament.
Hunslet Hawks visited Wigan Warriors last week and, after being blitzed in the opening quarter, gave a good account of themseleves in what could be some of their players’ only appearance at a big-match venue like DW Stadium. The Cup would lose some of the magic it still has left if that sort of opportunity was denied to them.
A cap on admission prices might help. Surely it’s better to attract 10,000 people paying £10 than 5,000 forking out twice that? But what the Challenge Cup – and the sport in general – really needs is a different time frame. This year the fourth and fifth rounds were played in April, the quarters will be in June, the semi-finals on August 9/10 and the decider two weeks later.
There’s no consistency or continuity and the biggest matches are being squeezed into a relatively short period at the end of the season.
There are just three (two last year) Super League rounds between Wembley and the start of the play-offs.
The current calendar is also why Rhinos will be taking nothing for granted – and currently out-of-form Warrington Wolves won’t be unduly worried.
They may be in good/poor form now, but that could have evaporated/returned – or injuries may strike or clear-up – before the summer.
Clubs can now cruise through the early months of the campaign and aim to peak for the back end.
Playing the early Challenge Cup rounds in pre-season and the final in late April/early May would give a better balance to the calendar and reward good early form.
Rob Burrow could have been an early Man of Steel candidate, given how well he was playing before he suffered a fractured collarbone in Leeds Rhinos’ Tetley’s Challenge Cup win over St Helens last weekend.
Burrow has been consistently one of – if not the – best players to watch in the British game over the past decade and has produced some of his top form in recent weeks. He is also among the game’s most genuine and nicest people. It was noticeable following Saturday’s tie he was willing to conduct TV and press interviews despite his injury, while Jamie Peacock pottered off to the BBC studio for post-match analysis, having just run his blood to water in a fierce showdown. That sort of selfless attitude is quite commonplace in rugby league. For example, Peacock referees junior games at Stanningley, Bradford Bulls boss Francis Cummins helps out with coaching at North Leeds Leopards and Castleford Tigers’ Andy Lynch is a coach at the Kippax community club. Every week players give up their spare time to assist in the community or at local clubs, simply because they want to. It’s hard to imagine that happening in certain other sports and proves what remarkable individuals rugby league players are.