Talking Rugby League: Challenge Cup maintains tradition
By John Whalley
THERE was one obvious omission from the ambitious Super League plans
announced in Leeds yesterday and that was a statement on what happens to
the Challenge Cup after this season.
That is partly because the future of the cup has still to be negotiated as
the television contract with the BBC and the sponsors Silk Cut ends in
April. It is also true that as yesterday's launch was only concerned, on
the domestic front at least, with what happens in 1996, there is nothing to
fret about yet for those of us wanting this prestigious competition
But the fact is, fitting the Challenge Cup into the schedule and
maintaining the BBC coverage is not easy. The sport will never be the same
played during the summer and there is a real danger of priorities changing.
Qualifying for the lucrative end of season play-offs against the top four
Australian sides will be to the forefront of chairmen and coaches'
thoughts. Getting to a Wembley final comes second in the list of
Yet the case for keeping the competition is overwhelming in terms of
tradition and the millions it raises in gate revenue and sponsorship. But
one of the most relevant arguments for its continuation remains BBC
coverage. That is in spite of the BBC hardly being the flavour of the month
with rugby league followers. The amount of air time devoted to the recent
World Cup was immensely disappointing and many who were previously
uncertain about giving BSkyB exclusive rights for the Super League were
more committed to the satellite channel as a result.
Rugby league still needs the BBC and it is in the corporation's interest to
continue screening rugby league
But rugby league still needs the BBC and it is in the corporation's
interest to continue screening rugby league. The sport needs a television
facility where any licence payer can switch on to watch.
From the BBC's point of view, the Regal Trophy and Challenge Cup are played
at convenient times of the year to screen, in the months of November,
December and January for the former, with February, March and April for the
With the season switching from March to September there seems no hope of a
compromise, especially if the tournament appears to be devalued. Yet there
is still a way of satisfying all.
What is needed is for the fourth round, when the television becomes
involved, to be played a week before the season starts or to start the
season earlier in 1997 and set a week aside for the fourth round. The fifth
and sixth rounds could then be slotted into April with the semi-finals
scheduled for a weekend in early May with the final taking place either
later in the month or in early June.
To ensure sponsors and television are convinced the cup will maintain its
standing, the League need to offer one of the four play-off places to the
winners. At present, the top four sides will meet their Australian
counterparts. I would make it three with the Wembley winners or, in the
event of them finishing in the top three, the runners-up qualifying for the
There will still need to be modifications. I would make Super League and
First Division clubs exempt until the fourth round with the amateurs and
Second Division clubs meeting a stage earlier.
Excellent as Sky's coverage has been over the last five years, the BBC need
to remain in the fold while the Challenge Cup is an essential part of the
rugby league season in either winter or summer. The 1997 season is a long
way off, but in order for rugby league to maintain its place in the
nation's sporting conscience, the Challenge Cup needs to be part of it.