A REVISED format has breathed new life into the ailing Challenge Cup.
Almost unnoticed, a form of seeding has been introduced to rugby league’s most prestigious knockout competition, with four Super League sides entering at the fifth round stage, before the rest of the top flight join the fray in the last-16.
As a possession game, rugby league rarely sees the sort of upsets which make football’s FA Cup so compelling. Fans have made it clear they are not interested in watching a Super League team run up a cricket score against lower division opposition, or semi-professional sides doing the same to those from the community game.
For part-time clubs, particularly those near the bottom of the pyramid, a home tie against Super League opposition raises the real prospect of a financial loss.
Even trips to the likes of Leeds, Wigan or Warrington, while providing a good day out for the visiting fans and a memorable experience for players, are unlikely to do much for a Championship or League One outfit’s bank balance.
Meaningful matches are what is required and the Challenge Cup shake-up introduced as part of rugby league’s so-called new era has provided that.
Under the new Cup format, community clubs compete in rounds one and two, before League One sides enter an open draw for round three.
Championship teams join in round four and the clubs finishing from ninth to 12th in Super League enter at the fifth round.
The fifth round draw produced this week was far more compelling than the matches seen when Super League clubs were placed into the bag in round four last year and so far the Cup has featured some competitive matches which both teams, beforehand, would have believed they were capable of winning.
In round five, all four top-flight outfits will face one of the Championship’s promotion hopefuls, with the tie of the round being big-spending Salford Red Devils’ derby at Leigh Centurions, the only game not involving a Yorkshire side.
Leigh have lost just twice since the start of last season, at Leeds Rhinos in a Challenge Cup quarter-final, which they looked capable of winning for an hour or so and a shock league defeat at Doncaster.
It is tough to chose a winner, with Salford’s expensively-assembled team now showing signs of finally getting their act together under coach Iestyn Harris. Sky Sports have decided to take up their option of televising the tie and it should make riveting viewing.
Equally attractive is the prospect of Hull KR’s trip to one of last year’s relegated teams, Bradford Bulls, Hull’s difficult challenge at Sheffield Eagles or struggling Wakefield Trinity Wildcats’ home meeting with ambitious Halifax.
At the other end of the scale, York City Knights, without a home for their League One campaign, will not find it easy away to Leigh Miners Rangers, of the National Conference, who saw off Oxford in the previous stage.
Hunslet have home advantage in an all-Championship derby against Dewsbury, who were beaten at South Leeds Stadium in a league game earlier this month. Batley (at home v Swinton) and Featherstone Lions (at North Wales) should progress against lower league opponents, but cannot take a place in the last 16 for granted.
Dave Craven will return next week.