Thursday, August 24, 2006

The Not-Quite-So-Grand Final?

This weekend sees the Challenge Cup Final at Twickenham between Huddersfield and St Helens - not that you'd know if you didn't follow the game, so low key has the advertising and promotion for it been.

The Challenge Cup has taken a bit of a battering in recent years. It's found itself moved around the calendar with the change to summer, first staying in its traditional late winter, early spring slot but being almost a pre-season competition, then being spread out more across the season with the final in late summer. The final itself has done a tour of the country while some itinerant Aussies try to build a national stadium out of lego and pipe cleaners, taking in Edinburgh, Cardiff and the home of English rugby union.

Where the "big day out" at Wembley used to be the showpiece of the rugby league calendar, it now has competition from the Super League Grand Final at Old Trafford each October. Its position as the ultimate achievement for a player and fan alike has been usurped and some of its thunder stolen by the newcomer. While there's still nothing to compare with a knockout tournament leading to a showpiece occasion, the SL playoffs provide exactly the same thing so that uniqueness that used to belong to a cup run has gone.

Perhaps some of the gloss has also been taken off by the loss of the unpredictability in terms of results. Upsets seem to be fewer and further between as the gap in standards between Super League and the National Leagues grows - victories by Tolouse over Widnes and Hull KR over Warrington not withstanding.

Of course, try telling this to the fans of competing clubs this weekend. All that will matter to them is the result, although Huddersfield fans (as with Hull last year) will take a sense of satisfaction out of simply being there whatever the outcome after such a long time between drinks. Hopefully the game will match the occasion, and to roll out an old cliche "rugby league will be the real winner".

Friday, August 11, 2006

To cap it all...

Just when Wigan Warriors fans thought a thoroughly miserable season had turned the corner, two events come along to kick them firmly back down into the relegation dogfight.

Firstly, a Castleford Tigers side that have been difficult to beat at home turn into pussycats against the Wakefield Trinity Wildcats, despite having a man advantage for the second half. Then to rub salt into the wound, the club are penalised two points and fined for exceeding their permitted salary cap expenditure in 2005.

Should Wigan lose at Leeds tonight and Wakefield beat the relegation immune Les Catalans tomorrow, the Warriors will find themselves two points adrift again in the relegation battle with games running out.

Much has been made of the fact that the penalty actually applies for the season after the offence has been comitted, so any advantage gained (and the statement to accompany the fine in particular reads as though the breach was to deliberately gain an advantage) isn't nullified. Last year's Grand Final winners the Bradford Bulls are also under investigation for a possible breach in 2005, yet any penalty would not deprive them of the title they won in that year.

It's hard to see what the RFL can do about this though. Clubs are asked to submit two returns, one mid-year and one at the end of it. These returns then have to be audited by the RFL, and given the complexity of the cap rules this is a lengthy and involved process. It's only at the end of the season that any breach can be truly identified as the expenditure limits relate to the full year.

It's far from being a perfect system, but other than dishing out the sort of retrospective punishments that have been so troublesome in the recent Italian football scandal the RFL doesn't seem to have a hatful of alternatives.