The Challenge Cup in 2020
Despite being an avowed radical when it comes to rugby league culture – best encapsulated as “burn it all down and guillotine those that disagree” – I can see why the Challenge Cup has appeal. Running a format similar to that of the much more famous FA Cup, there’s something between the destructive chaos wrought by knock-out football and the ability for any club to participate no matter the background that has massive appeal.
A mix of apathy, ignorance, time slots and broadcast restrictions mean that I’ve never taken much interest in the Challenge Cup. That is, up until the Catalan Dragons won it in 2018. I discovered that the Challenge Cup had a long history of international club participation. Alongside Catalans, clubs from outside the United Kingdom, including Toronto Wolfpack, Red Star Belgrade, Longhorns of Ireland, Pia, Paris St Germain, Lezignan, Carcassonne, Toulouse, Villeneuve and Saint-Gaudens from France and Dinamo Moscow and Lokomotiv Moscow, have had a crack at the tournament. In this sense, the Cup provides an excellent platform for teams to chance their hand at a higher level than they may get at home, without the commitment of joining the RFL pyramid. But 2018 was the first time a team from outside had won the competition.
The Cup has faced declining interest in recent years and not just because a French team made the final. It remains to be seen how, with the likes of knock-out finals in the Super League and Magic Weekend becoming the sport’s pilgrimage, the Wembley final maintains relevance in the 21st century. As hosting rights become a viable revenue stream for rugby league, the RFL will need to find a way to make the finals, at least, saleable and that will likely involve leaving London and following the cash.
The other challenge is finding space for it in an increasingly crammed calendar. With Super League now contested over an unnecessary twenty-nine rounds plus finals and with the slowly growing re-emphasis on international football, the half dozen weekends required to contest the Cup are valuable real estate, especially given the opportunity cost and the wear and tear on players. In my vision for a future hyper-mega-league that the sport should be working towards, even with a shortened club season, I’m not sure I’d make room for the Cup as it currently stands. On the other hand, if Origin doesn’t work in Europe, then maybe this is their equivalent.
Current travails aside, the competition for 2020 is already underway. The second round completed, the number of non-league teams is being whittled down in anticipation of the League 1 clubs joining the fray in round 3. In the fourth round, the Championship clubs will join, followed by the bottom four of Super League in the fifth and the balance in the sixth round with finals to commence thereafter. In this, we take a look ahead at how this year’s Cup might unfold.
Rating the Challengers
You should be familiar enough with how we approach Elo ratings by now but just in case, we use two systems side-by-side. The first is a form rating, which measures short term performance by calculations based on the points margin of each game, and the second is a class rating, which measures long term performance based on small rating changes for wins and losses. You can review the history of the RFL class ratings in the post from earlier this week.
I used the class rating system as a basis for simulating the 2020 Cup 50,000 times. Historically, the class rating has been a comparatively poor predictor of match results but this system has the advantage of rating teams across leagues, saving us the trouble of trying to estimate differences between the leagues and applying corrective measures, as I did for the GRLFC Rankings. Obviously, this is an important feature when the fates can have clubs from different leagues mixing and matching.
Here’s how each team stacks up going into 2020:
Worth nothing that the ratings of new teams, like Toronto and Toulouse, are a little underdone. They haven’t had as much time as the other clubs to beef up their rating, even though they’ve accumulated points about as quickly as humanly possible.
It’s probably going the way you’d expect
In 2020, we’re really only considering three obvious challengers:
After a poor couple of seasons, the class rating doesn’t see Leeds as a member of the big four anymore, leaving St Helens, Wigan and defending champions Warrington as the favourites to hoist the trophy at Wembley.
Outside of that, two things surprise me about the results of this exercise. The first is how many teams are exactly zero chance of winning the Cup. Sixteen of the thirty-seven teams registered no simulated wins. Of these, half a dozen made it as far as the final in a handful of cases but failed to win any of them. That’s got to be deflating. Worse still are clubs like Skolars and Coventry, who never made the semis, or West Wales, who didn’t clear the sixth round. The simple fact is if you need consecutive low probability events to go your way, eventually they pile up into an impossibility. As an exercise, multiply 30% by 30% five or six times and you’ll see what the Raiders and Bears are up against.
On the contrary, and the second surprising thing, is how many clubs can still realistically challenge. The entire Super League has a shot, largely by virtue of playing fewer games with far better squads, but even the likes of the London Broncos and Leigh Centurions could be featuring in the latter stages of the tournament, if not fighting for the title. The aforementioned big three total up to a 61% chance with the implied flipside being that there’s a 39% chance of any other team winning. If Wests Tigers can win a NRL premiership, then anything is possible.
One of the myths underpinning the Challenge Cup, and indeed similar tournaments around the world, is that anyone can win it. Reality doesn’t bear that out – the last team from outside the top flight to win the FA Cup was in 1980 and I’m not sure if or when that has happened in the Challenge Cup – but it’s still a part of the competition’s narrative. Based on the simulations, you can see that, by far, the most likely pathway is for each division to be squeezed out one-by-one as the rounds progress. Any team may be able to participate but that doesn’t necessarily mean they have the capability to compete.
Context from past cups
The chaos of knock-out football is one thing, but all of this is probabilistic. Ince Rose Bridge could very well win the Challenge Cup but it is extremely unlikely. I don’t think that’s controversial. I always say anything can happen and even the word “impossible” does a lot of heavy lifting in this context, but some events are very difficult to see occurring.
Here we have no hard and fast predictions – making them isn’t really my style in any case – but we can see from running the same exercise for the last two Cups how “good” the simulations are at making predictions. After all, the probabilities above are only as good as the mechanism for deriving them.
This time two years, the graph looked a lot like this:
And the Catalan Dragons (2.5%) won. Last year:
And the Warrington Wolves (12.1%) won. This should give fans some hope that we aren’t here to witness St Helens waltz their way to The Double but might seem to undermine the quality of the forecasting.
Looking closer, what we find across the two tournaments is that, for each team, the team exits at the round estimated to be the most likely about 40% of the time. About the same number again are only off by one round, either exiting one round earlier or surviving one round longer than their most likely outcome.
I think that’s pretty reasonable. The 2019 Wigan Warriors were the only team who had winning the Cup as their most likely outcome. It remains to be seen whether the 2020 St Helens side, who are similarly favoured, will manage to go one better than 2019 or if the likes of Huddersfield or Castleford will spring a surprise.