Talking RL: ‘Ignore the crowd issue and enjoy the Challenge Cup Final’

Catalans fans enjoy the semi-final at Bolton
Catalans fans enjoy the semi-final at Bolton
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Why has so much discussion about the Challenge Cup Final been about the crowd?

Catalans are 80 minutes away from winning their first piece of silverware, less than a year after being in the Million Pound Game, and the involvement of a French side has added a vibrancy to Saturday’s final.

It should be celebrated and enjoyed.

Instead, my Twitter timeline is being taken up by stories and moans about how many empty seats there will be at Wembley.

Even former Salford chairman Marwan Koukash waded in, declaring: “The Challenge cup on Saturday will show that overseas club bring nothing to our RL game.”

If this is a row about attendances, it’s worth noting that of the eight Super-8s/Qualifiers games last weekend, the highest attendance wasn’t along the M62, but in Canada, where Toronto drew 7,540 fans.

And after Cas’-Wire, the next highest was in France, where 6,739 were at Catalans’ home match (with not many travelling Wigan fans because of the short notice and expensive prices.... sound familiar?).

Meanwhile, Salford faced north west rivals Widnes in a crucial match, and just 2,317 turned out.

Sometimes I think there are some rugby league fans who would still moan if they won the lottery.

Catalans are one of the most commercially successful clubs in Super League, they have some of the best home crowds, they attract some of the best players from the NRL, and they do more for junior development than a lot of English clubs.

They bring a lot of positives to rugby league.

Filling England stadia is inevitably not going to be one of them!

Especially not at this time of year, with three weeks’ notice between the semi-final and final (surely a case to widen that margin?).

A quick look on Skyscanner, travelling Friday to Sunday, highlighted some of the difficulties their fans would face: £674 return from Perpignan, £470 from Bezier, no flights from Carcassonne, £414 from Gerona.

The only flights under £200 I could find were from Barcelona and Nimes - both a good two hours’ drive away. And that doesn’t account for parking, expenses and a London hotel on a Bank Holiday Weekend. All, I’m guessing, on the same pay-day since they qualified for the final.

With all that in mind, I’m quite surprised they expect up to 5,000 supporters to get across.

I’m pleased Catalans have reached Wembley. In a year which has seen Wigan take a game to the southern hemisphere, a top Test staged in America, and Toronto and Toulouse push for promotion to the top-flight, the Dragons’ presence at Wembley reflects a shifting rugby league landscape. Expansionists have never known it as good.

And the doom-merchants may not say it, but the Challenge Cup has had problems with crowd sizes for years.

Until recently, thousands of Club Wembley seats have counted in the declared attendance... even when there has been a band of largely-empty red seats circling the stadium.

Which goes some way to explaining why the 68,000-crowd at last year’s final between Wigan and Hull FC was around 10,000 down on the attendances announced for previous deciders.

So, yes, question the marketing of the final. Ask if French ex-pats have been targeted. Discuss what can be done to reclaim some of its lost appeal. Debate whether it should be moved from its August slot. Enjoy the spectacle. Hope both teams turn up and the match delivers the goods.

And ignore those who slavishly obsess over attendances. Take their view to the extreme - if the Challenge Cup was only open to the clubs who could get a strong Wembley crowd, the first round could start with two semi-finals!

Related: ’Moving final from Wembley would ruin the Challenge Cup’