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".

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