To this day, Rugby League oldest competition is still its greatest and most prestigious. There is something to be said about the carnival atmosphere of the Challenge Cup Final. I have been to two of them and also to several Cup round matches and there is something wonderful in the air about them.
So for those those of you Rugby League Fans that have been living under a rock… or possibly in Australia… the Challenge Cup is Rugby League equivalent to the FA Cup in soccer. Its a knock out competition where all comers go into a hat and get drawn out. You can get pro teams come up against semi pro teams or amateur teams. Its probably the only time where you will get to see lower level teams have a crack at the big boys.
I have heard many a story from people who tell me that their father or grand father played against so and so in a Challenge Cup. They got beaten badly but they go to play a famous team. This is what is about, and the fact its a knock out tournament rather than a league tournament means that one bad performance for a team and they are out! Does not matter if you’re top of Super League or not!
This year sees the Wigan take on Hull FC. Wigan’s success in the Challenge Cup is Legendary while Hull have a hoodoo in Wembley having never won it there as far as I know. They did win it when it was in Millennium Stadium. Wigan are running 3rd in Super League and Hull are 7th, Wigan will be “favourites” but in reality this means nothing.
My first Challenge CVup final was in 2008. I saw St Helens take on Hull FC and win convincingly. There was 80,000 in there and the whole carnival atmosphere blew me away. Rugby league fans of all teams and walk of life from all over the country and world descend for the day. The partying starts early in the morning in London and and then onto the Various pubs and bars around Wembley Way. Then slowly but surely around noon people start making their way into the stadium. It has a plethora of banners of different amateur clubs “on tour” and various supporters groups. I am sure my friends from the “Hull KR Away Days” will be there once again. Unfortunately I wont be there this year.
Last year I had an extra privilege with the Cup Final, as part of the Polish Rugby league delegation I experienced the game from the Wembley Club and afterwards got to meet the players and also to hold the actual Challenge Cup Trophy! That thing is damn heavy, but a spectacular piece of silverware.
Having been to that first Challenge Cup Final it spurred me on to see other games. I did the trek up to Whitehaven to see them take on Lezignan and got to see Lokomotive Moscow (before they left the Russian League back to Union) up against Leigh Centurions in Leigh. I have some great memories of the Challenge Cup and I hope that I will have more in the future.
If you love Rugby League, the Challenge Cup is like doing a pilgrimage or the Hajj, its something that needs to be done once in your lifetime. Its the ultimate Rugby League experience.
Coverage: Live coverage on BBC One HD (14:15-17:15) and BBC Sport website, live commentary on BBC Radio 5 Live, BBC Radio Manchester & BBC Radio Humberside
For the record, I think Hull will break their curse and win in a close encounter 28 – 24.
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