The Cup downgraded and degraded

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There is a sharp historic irony in the way that the Challenge Cup, which celebrates its centenary this year, finds its role in the overall scheme of things more ambiguous than at any time over the past hundred years.

The Cup hits its stride this weekend, as the big clubs enter the fray for the fourth round. That much, at least, is built into the game's psyche; but the pioneers from Batley and St Helens who battled their way to the first final in 1897 would never have envisaged it reduced to the status of a pre-season competition.

That, in essence, is what has happened to rugby league's most famous trophy. It has been relegated to the role of a warm-up for the main event later on.

If we ignore the confusing transition from winter to summer last year, this is the first time that the Silk Cut Challenge Cup, as it now is, will start and - for all but four teams - finish before the league season gets underway.

It is possible to claim that by retaining the Wembley final in its usual place in late April or early May the tradition of the Challenge Cup is being continued.

But the date on the calendar is not the salient point. The historic function of the Challenge Cup - like the FA Cup - is as a climax of the season. It should therefore be in August and September, but it will not be, because that would risk detracting from the impact of Super League.

It could also be argued that there has been too great an obsession with the Cup in the past; in rugby league, more than in football, fans and clubs have often concentrated on the road to Wembley to the exclusion of all else. A balance needed to be struck - but not by degrading a famous competition.

The other notable difference this year is that the losers this weekend will go into a Plate competition, which will also culminate at Wembley, as the curtain-raiser on 3 May.

This is a potentially lucrative business - the winners of the Plate will earn more than the losing side in the Cup final itself - but there are questions to be asked about the devaluation of the Wembley experience.

A study of football's policy over the past 20 years should be sufficient to sound the warning sirens. A visit to Wembley in that sport, once something to be aspired towards for its rarity value, is now cheapened by the way that virtually every club can sneak in through the back door for some match or other.

It will be nice for the players of, say, Hull and Widnes if they lose this Sunday and later qualify for the Plate final, but they would be well advised not to try to tell earlier generations of Cup finalists that they too have played at Wembley. In the true sense, they will not have done.

The Plate concept also corrupts the pristine simplicity of sudden-death rugby. It is notoriously difficult to prevent players from trying their hardest when they get on the field, but the fact is that some teams will be better off losing this weekend.

It could be worse. The reaction of the St Helens coach, Shaun McRae, to being drawn against Wigan in the fourth round was to urge the introduction of a seeding system to prevent anything as unplanned and untidy happening in the future.

That is to miss the point. The random element is the essence of the Cup - and it is already excessively compromised by amateur clubs being automatically drawn away from home in the third round. If that was left to the fates, there would be more amateurs alongside Dudley Hill in this week's ties.

It is excusable for an Australian to fail to understand the nature of Cup rugby. Knock-out competition is a minor component of the scene there. It is more surprising when home-grown reformers suggest further perversions, like playing the early rounds in groups.

And yet, enough of the magic remains. A thrill still went round the room when Saints and Wigan came out of the bag together last week.

We will see on the faces of the followers of the losing side tomorrow that the Cup still has a direct connection to the game's nervous system.

The sport's administrators can try to rationalise it. "We wouldn't be flattened by losing," insists the Wigan chairman, Jack Robinson. "We would still have a lot to play for - the Super League Championship, the World Club Challenge....''

Try telling them that in Scholes Labour Club tomorrow night, if their Cup run ends before the season starts.