THE CHALLENGE Cup climbed off its sickbed last weekend and had a nice run around.
The competition is ailing, there’s no doubt about that, but the round-four action proved it isn’t yet at death’s door.
There were talking points aplenty and the passions aroused suggested the sport’s oldest competition is one everybody – fans, players and administrators – still wants to win.
On the downside, not one of the 16 ties played attracted a five-figure gate – the best being 7,150 at the televised tie between Huddersfield and St Helens, though it was also reported as being a couple of thousand fewer than that.
Bradford Bulls drew less than 2,800 for the visit of third-tier Oldham and there was a slightly smaller gate of 2,443 at Catalan – where London Broncos were the visitors.
The official attendance for Wakefield Trinity Wildcats’ home clash with Leeds Rhinos was 4,483.
When Leeds visited Wakefield in Super League last year, a figure of 10,031 was announced.
There are various reasons for the poor Challenge Cup crowds and Wildcats might have pulled in more Leeds fans if they hadn’t been charging £22 on the day – though with a capacity of 5,333 that would have caused its own problems.
When Rhinos played St Helens in the fifth round of the 1999 Challenge Cup competition – a BBC-televised game – the gate was 14,162. It’ll be a surprise if the rematch later this month, live on BBC1, draws many more than half that.
Circumstances have changed.
Fifteen years ago, the tie was both sides’ second of the season and was played in February, with a May final.
This year the competition begins after seven Super League rounds and is then spread over four months, with the final in August.
After rounds four and five in April, the quarter-finals do not take place until June, with the semi-finals two months after that, but only a fortnight before the final.
The end of the season is now over-crowded, with just three Super League rounds between Wembley and the start of the play-offs.
Switching the early rounds back to pre-season would allow Super League to start later and, with the final in late April/early May give a better balance to the calendar.
Clearly though, players still want to win the Challenge Cup. That was obvious from Danny Brough’s reaction after his late drop goal attempt against Saints was ruled out by referee Phil Bentham, without the assistance of his video back-up.
The word from RFL headquarters at Red Hall is that, with replays proving inconclusive, video referee Ian Smith would not have awarded the goal, but the fact of the matter is Bentham should still have checked.
Saints’ Luke Walsh subsequently landed a one-pointer to win the tie, as Rangi Chase had done for Salford Red Devils at Hull at few days earlier.
Though the fourth round threw up some one-sided games, most surprisingly at Wakefield, there were also some tight matches – and even a row over the fifth-round draw, with allegations being made that the numbers six and nine had been mixed up. The RFL have denied that, but how hard is it to stage a Cup draw?
Using named balls instead of numbers or simply removing the No 9 would save a lot of bother.
That said, on the other hand controversy creates interest and if last weekend is anything to go by, this year’s Challenge Cup competition could be a cracker.