Union needs its own Rugby FA Cup

As rugby pundits start to summarise 2021, there is one competition which will hardly garner a footnote. It’s fair to say, the Premiership Rugby Cup fails to garner significant ticket sales or mainstream attention. If you look through the last cup finals, only two had a crowd of over 10,000. A Rugby FA Cup it is not.
It’s sad, because the national cup has a rich history. Search ‘Powergen Cup Final’ or ‘Pilkington Cup Final’ into YouTube (former names of the cup competition due to various sponsors), and you will see huge spectacles in front of a packed-out Twickenham. The competition’s past illustrates its potential. How could the Premiership Rugby Cup change to reignite its spark?

Rugby union can take nspiration from football’s FA Cup

Rugby should constantly keep an eye on other sports for inspiration. If tiddlywinks is capturing public attention, rugby administrators should find out why, and transfer these lessons into our sport. In the context of cup competitions, look no further than football’s FA Cup.

What makes the FA cup so exciting? Yes, fans love another opportunity for their team to bring home silverware. Arguably more than that, is the ‘David Vs Goliath’ stories. The League 2 side turning up at Old Trafford and knocking Manchester United off their horse. The mismatches, pitting part-timers against global superstars. In a nutshell, the unusual.The problem with the Premiership Rugby Cup is it’s the usual, but worse. It’s the same teams facing off but with (often) their best players rested. So even when the showpiece final comes along, nobody cares.

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It’s fine, or even desirable for players to be rested. Cup competitions can be a vital stepping stone for players to develop. Some of the current England team found their feet in the Premiership Cup, for example. However, there needs to be something different to still keep it interesting.

Championship clubs should be introduced

The valuable lesson to take from the FA Cup is introducing teams from lower divisions. Championship clubs offer something different from the Premiership’s commercial stadiums. They may have smaller stands, but they offer communal clubhouses with charming quirks. Some squads will include part-time players with ordinary jobs. To watch an English giant falter at one of these grounds would make great television, and a spectacular live event. The Championship is owed this too. Look through the alumni of most championship teams, and you will see world class players who developed there as youngsters. Despite this, their central funding had been slashed in recent years, from £675,000 per season in 2017 to £150,000 now. The RFU may argue this is out of necessity, especially given their financial woes during the pandemic. In that case, why not create a sustainable source of funding? Imagine the income from television rights for a Championship club hosting Saracens or Harlequins.

Possible Rugby FA Cup tournament structure

The most straight-forward formats are more likely to engage casual rugby fans.  Therefore, returning to a knock-out cup is best option.There are 24 clubs between the Premiership and the Championship. The top eight ranked teams (based on the previous season’s league standings) would get a first-round bye. The other 16 teams would battle for a place in Round 2. Round 2 would be followed by the quarter-finals, semi-finals, and final.

The opening rounds could look something like the below:
Round 1:
Cornish Pirates vs Ealing Trailfinders
Doncaster Vs London Irish
Ampthill Vs Hartpury
Nottingham Vs Bedford
Worcester Vs Jersey
Coventry Vs Newcastle
Gloucester Vs London Scottish
Richmond Vs Saracens
Round 2: 
Ampthill/Hartpury Vs Richmond/Saracens
Bristol Vs Cornish Pirates/Ealing Trailfinders
Bath Vs Northampton
Doncaster/London Irish Vs Worcester/Jersey
Harlequins Vs Gloucester/London Scottish
Sale Vs Leicester
Wasps Vs Coventry/Newcastle
Exeter Vs Nottingham/Bedford

Making more ‘Iconic Moments’ in rugby union

Former England international Lewis Moody was fond of the idea of an FA Cup style competition in rugby. He expressed concerns about player safety, with sheer differences of power between athletes in the Premiership, and the lower leagues. This is a reasonable concern, but this why only Championship clubs would be invited, and not lower divisions. Championship clubs have faced Premiership-quality opposition when clubs such as London Irish and Bristol were relegated, and from pre-season friendlies. Moody did also note how this kind of competition would create lifelong memories: “For players in the lower leagues, it would be a highlight of their careers playing against internationals”.
For a taster of how special this could be, look no further than March of this year. Cornish Pirates defeated the mighty Saracens at Mennaye Field in the opening round of the RFU Championship. Saracens packed their team with internationals, including British and Irish Lion Sean Maitland, and World Cup winner Vincent Koch. Social media was buzzing, and Pirates coach Alan Paver hailed the win as an “iconic moment” for his team.

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Sadly, as Paver noted: “The only thing it was missing was 5,000 Cornishmen shouting their heads off”. If one day, this new competition became a reality, Mennaye Field (or even a Stadium for Cornwall) may host this kind of moment with those Cornishmen in full voice.
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