Talking RL: Dear RFL, please keep Cup Final at Wembley

And the hits just keep on coming.

Thursday, 18th May 2017, 11:30 am
Updated Sunday, 4th June 2017, 9:33 pm
Liam Marshall helped Wigan to a winning start to their Challenge Cup campaign

First up, we were told ticket sales for the Magic Weekend are down on last year.

Then, the day later, Super League chief Roger Draper revealed the World Club Series is likely to stay in England, probably in its scaled-back two-game format.

After bold talk of taking it on the road – to America, Dubai, Singapore, Australia – the news was, while not a shock, a little uninspiring.

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In a week in which one of Super League’s flagship events takes place, I thought, surely the RFL can’t reveal any more bad news?

And then they did.

With confirmation they are considering moving the Challenge Cup Final away from Wembley.

No, no, no!

“It would take a brave man to move it away from there,” Draper admitted to the Guardian.

I’d argue it would take a foolish one.

When people talk of the romance of the Challenge Cup, it’s because of Wembley.

Because of the golden memories that have been created by those who have gone before them. At Wembley. Because of nostalgic trips to past finals at – yep – Wembley.

“It’s probably become our third biggest property.... Magic Weekend has overtaken it in terms of fans and we’re conscious of that,” said Draper.

No, it’s not.

Not according to the attendance figures on the RFL’s own website, with all the crowds above the 76,000-mark since the final played its first game at the redeveloped Wembley in 2007.

And if the Challenge Cup Final has lost any of its shine – and there’s a case it has – I’d suggest it’s because it’s easier for the top-eight Super League sides to get to the final under this current format (Wigan, who have beaten Swinton, need to win two games to book a trip to the capital).

Or maybe it’s because of its August timeslot, rather than earlier in the year.

Either way, if the final has lost some sparkle, Wembley isn’t the reason the it.

If anything, it’s one of the big reasons the competition remains so revered and cherished.

Sure, let’s take Magic on the road. It benefits from going somewhere new.

But like the Grand Final is already linked with Old Trafford, the Challenge Cup Final belongs at Wembley.

Of course, the key word in all of this may be ‘considering’. And it may just be smoke and mirrors as they prepare to enter negotiations over the competition’s future.

But if someone had told me at the start of the year that the RFL would opt to show a Test match behind a paywall on its own website instead of on the BBC, I wouldn’t have believed them.

Rugby league has got enough problems to deal with, without needing to create fresh ones.

A player from each of the 12 Super League clubs was at Newcastle on Monday for the media launch of the Magic Weekend.

Fans will notice Wigan are the only club not to be wearing a special kit for the event. The reason? They already had plans for a one-off shirt for a game later in the season. Which seems fair enough.

But that didn’t stop one fan joking that Liam Farrell looks like an unfortunate kid who turned up at school in his uniform on non-uniform day!

If a game can be gauged by what would have been ‘taken’ beforehand, then Sunday’s 42-12 win at Swinton (well, Sale) was satisfying enough.

Because when I saw two forwards in the halfback roles, and five players in the side who only debuted this year, I thought it could have been a tricky obstacle against a team which beat Hudersfield in the last round.

But Wigan turned a potential-banana-skin into an efficient, comfortable win against part-time opposition who didn’t lack heart, just a touch of quality.

They are now in the quarter-finals, and the big win has added a calmness to their Magic Weekend preparations.

With Sean O’Loughlin, George Williams and possibly Thomas Leuluai back on board, they should look more settled than in recent weeks.

Like Good Friday, Shaun Wane has a perfect record in the Magic event, though this is the first against Warrington and - it seems - the last to be staged at Newcastle.

At least for the time-being.

I started enjoying the Magic Weekend when I lowered my expectations of what to expect from Super League’s annual ‘on the road’ event.

At first, it seemed it was created to ‘spread the word’. On that front, it only made marginal, if any, gains.

But as a carnival weekend for existing fans, a mid-season focal-point, and a good excuse to visit somewhere different, it scores big points.

Only trouble is, they can run stale after more than two years at the same venue, which is why I’d be happy if league chiefs drew up a cycle of new and old destinations - and I wouldn’t mind Liverpool and London being on the list - and change it each year.

It was great to see Wigan secure the services of Tom Davies and Liam Marshall for the next three years.

The two young wingers have been among the finds of the season so far.

It means, of course, Wigan have five wingers under contract along with Joe Burgess, Lewis Tierney and Dom Manfredi.

It can’t be long before some start debating where they’ll play if they are all fit.

But it’s worth noting four of them are currently in the side because of injuries at centre and full-back.

And if everyone is, ever, available? Let Shaun Wane worry about that.

The rest of us can just enjoy having so many quality wingers in the squad.