SAY what you like about the RFL, but they bloody love a cup competition.
It only takes a quick glance at the history of rugby league in the UK to see the myriad of knockout tournaments which have formed part of the fixture list down the years – some fondly-remembered and some not missed at all.
Traditionally, the Yorkshire and Lancashire County Cups were competed for along with the Challenge Cup before being axed after the 1992-93 season following complaints from some clubs about the amount of fixtures being played.
The BBC Two Floodlit Trophy, which has already been covered in detail on this blog, formed a part of the fixture list for 15 years as well, although there have been a number of other short-lived competitions which have vanished into the ether.
One of those was arguably the most unattractive tournament in the history of professional sport, the 1964 Bottom 14 Play-Offs.
Lasting for just one season and won by Huddersfield – who do not even bother to mention it on their honours list – it was notable only as a testing ground for a bizarre, and ultimately failed, experiment untaken at the behest of then-RFL secretary Bill Fallowfield where the play-the-ball was replaced with a rugby union-style ruck.
The height of cup fever was undoubtedly the 1973-74 season, where there were no less than six – count them, six! – knock-out competitions up for grabs thanks to the introduction of the Club Championship (later Premiership) and the Captain Morgan Trophy.
The latter of those was introduced to fill a gap in the schedule which existed only in the minds of the brains trust at Red Hall and featured an arcane qualifying system whereby the first-round winners in the County Cups and the team losing by the smallest margin in the Lancashire competition were all eligible to enter.
The Captain Morgan Trophy was concluded in an appropriately low-key manner, with two Derek Whitehead goals seeing Warrington beat Featherstone Rovers in front of just 5,259 spectators at The Willows on a January afternoon, and quietly shelved after one season.
Indeed, aside from the county competitions, the only one of the other cups introduced which had any serious longevity was the League Cup, which featured all of the professional teams and provided another platform for Imperial Tobacco to shill their smoky wares.
The RFL council had been toying with the idea of introducing a secondary knock-out tournament to complement the Challenge Cup for several seasons, intended to mirror the success of the football League Cups in Scotland and England.
It was eventually introduced in 1971 and branded as the Players No.6 Trophy, with the first season featuring all 30 professional clubs plus two of the top amateur sides, Warrington-based Thames Board Mills and Ace Amateurs from Hull.
The first round saw all 16 ties played between Friday, November 12 and Sunday, November 14 and, incredible as it may seem, three of them went to replays after finishing drawn.
Castleford, eventual runners-up Wakefield Trinty and Hull all progressed at the second time of asking, with Wigan also needing a replay to overcome Leeds in the quarter-finals.
But it was Halifax who were the first name on the new trophy, downing Wakefield 22-11 in the final at Odsal in January 1972, only to be dethroned in a 22-20 defeat at home to St Helens in the first round the following season.
Leeds and Warrington would go on to win the Trophy in the next two years, with the Wire beating Rochdale Hornets in a year which saw them lift the Challenge Cup, Club Championship and the aforementioned Captain Morgan Trophy.
It was a rare cup final appearance for Rochdale, although the biggest surprise finalists in the Trophy were Blackpool Borough in the 1976-77 season where only a disastrous year for Doncaster prevented the Lancashire side from propping up the Second Division.
Having edged out Championship outfit Barrow 16-15 in the first round, Borough saw off divisional rivals Halifax 7-3 before downing two more Championship sides, Working Town and Leigh, to reach the decider at The Willows.
The final was broadcast on the BBC as part of that day’s Grandstand and featured an awkward-looking Mal Reilly being presented with a giant stick of Blackpool rock ahead of kick-off, along with actor Windsor Davies being among the 4,512 spectators.
As for the game itself, Castleford proved too strong for Blackpool in the final and ran out 25-15 winners thanks to tries from Geoff Wraith, John Joyner, Phillip Johnson, Bruce Burton and Gary Stephens, plus five goals from Sammy Lloyd.
The 1977-78 season produced a shock as well, with Hull-based Cawoods becoming the first amateur team to beat a professional side in a cup tie since 1909 after they saw off Halifax 9-8 at Thrum Hall in the first round thanks to a late penalty goal, being eliminated by Wakefield in round two.
The format remained unchanged until the 1980-81 season when Fulham joined the professional ranks, leaving St Helens Recs as the sole amateur representative in what was by now called the John Player Trophy.
Cardiff City and Carlisle’s addition to the league the following year saw the amateur sides left out altogether, with a preliminary round now being played to account for the odd number of entrants which now stood at 33.
The amateur sides eventually returned in 1984 when Myson and Bradford Dudley Hill joined a competition which by now had expanded to 38 entrants following the number of new teams from outside the sport’s traditional northern heartland which had been accepted into the professional game.
And although that season saw Hull Kingston Rovers defeat cross-city rivals Hull 12-0 in the final, the 1985-86 campaign saw Wigan win what would be the first of seven Trophy titles in the next 11 seasons.
The amateur sides still proved capable of providing shocks though, with Myson defeating Batley 8-2 in 1986 and Leigh East downing Chorley Borough 2010 in the 1991-92 Regal Trophy.
By the 1990s though, the tournament had started to lose its appeal and even the addition of French clubs in 1992 – Carcassonne, XIII Catalans, AS Saint Esteve and Pia all took part in the final editions – did little to arrest the decline.
Aside from wins for St Helens, Warrington, Widnes and Castleford, Wigan’s dominance continued unabated – much as it did in all competitions throughout this era – although their 33-2 humbling by Castleford in 1994 lives on in the below YouTube clip which became something of a online viral sensation.
Wigan would become the final name on the trophy in 1996 though, beating St Helens 25-16 as Henry Paul ran in four tries to set the Cherry and Whites on their way to completing a domestic treble.
The Trophy was scraped following the switch to summer rugby to avoid more fixture congestion. It’s legacy arguably lives on in the inclusion of French entrants to the Challenge Cup and the English domestic leagues.
And even though it perhaps never had the glamour or prestige of the Challenge Cup, it certainly produced some memorable moments.