posted on Dec, 31 2004 @ 07:07 AM
Rugby league will break with a century of tradition in 2005 when they hold their famous Challenge Cup final in the height of summer. The prestigious
occasion was an end-of-season showpiece in April or May until the game made the switch from winter with the advent of Super League in 1996. While the
league season was moved on five months, the Cup stayed in the same place and, therefore, for the last nine years has been effectively reduced to the
status of a pre-season competition.
The implemention of a new television deal with the BBC provided the impetus for change and, despite opposition from the traditionalists, the 2005
competition will climax at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, August 27. The bold move is on a par with the historic decision made in 1929 to take
the final out of the game's heartland to Wembley and officials confidently predict a similiarly successful outcome.
The League have rarely had trouble filling stadia for the final - last year's St Helens-Wigan derby drew a capacity crowd of 73,734 - but attendances
dipped markedly for the early rounds as the competition made a low-key entry. The final, which has been 'on the road' since 1999, will be held in
Cardiff for the third and final time in 2005, as long as the new National Stadium at Wembley remains due for completion in 2006.
Super League teams will enter the contest in April rather than February and the new August date will take the Cup final nearer the Grand Final, which
is rivalling its old relation in terms of spectator interest. Indeed, there are those who argue the Grand Final is already now the most sought-after
prize, with tickets selling on the black market for last October's showdown between Bradford and Leeds for up to six times their face value.
Having ended their 32-year wait for the championship, Leeds have already been installed as the bookmakers' favourites to retain their crown. Bradford,
Wigan and St Helens are sure to be in the mix while Hull and Wakefield will continue their attempts to break up the oligopoly of the big four. Super
League newcomers Leigh Centurions, who succeeded at their fourth promotion attempt, have been installed as relegation favourites but, with two to go
down next season to accommodate the entry of Perpignan in 2006, the competition looks set to become fierce.
At least the competition promises to be fairer this time, with additional fixtures no longer loaded in favour of the bottom six teams. Australian Test
centre Jamie Lyon, St Helens' big close-season capture, heads another glittering array of talent winging its way from the National Rugby League, with
Mark McLinden (London) and David Vaealiki (Wigan) among other notable recruits. The season gets under way on February 4 with the now-traditional World
Club Challenge between the Rhinos and Australian premiers Canterbury Bulldogs.
A bumper crowd at Elland Road is assured as Leeds look to uphold a fine record by British teams in the annual inter-hemisphere clash of champions. The
current record stands at 3-2 in favour of Super League since the challenge was re-introduced five years ago. There will also be a familiar end to the
season with a re-run of the Tri-Nations Series, albeit in a scaled-down format, which was a resounding success when it was held in this country for
the first time in 2004. The tournament, which drew three sell-out crowds and provided a massive boost to the international game, is also due to be
repeated in 2006 and there is a push for Australia or New Zealand to act as hosts.