The Challenge Cup, its History, and its Manchester Connections
Rugby league’s oldest competition started in 1897, but its roots go much deeper.
Cup competitions in northern rugby union played a big role in spreading the appeal of the game beyond the upper-classes in the late 19th century. The Yorkshire Challenge Cup was the oldest and most successful competition, and drew huge crowds prior to rugby’s split, as local rivals competed for T’owd Tin Pot.
Cup competitions met the ire of rugby’s amateur hardliners. They believed them to be a corruption of the Corinthian spirit in the same way paying players did, by encouraging victory at all costs over and above the spirit of “playing the game.”
The Northern Union Cup, founded in the new code’s second year, was directly based on the Yorkshire competition (which still runs to this day). Lancashire, however, had many competitions of its own. In the Manchester district there was the South East Lancashire Cup, the Worsley Charity Cup, the Rochdale Charity Cup, and the Ashton Charity Cup to name a few.
The first two finals were held at Headingley, Yorkshire’s premier rugby venue, as had the previous three Yorkshire Cup finals. Batley won them both.
The trophy, everyone knows, was made by Fattorini’s of Bradford.
Not quite. Fattorini’s subcontracted Manchester silversmiths Lloyd, Payne and Amiel, who manufactured the trophy at their workshop on 23 and 25 Thomas Street, Manchester. Lloyd, Payne and Amiel had for a long time dealt with the rugby community of Manchester, often commissioned by Broughton Rangers for gifts given to long-serving players for their testimonials.
The trophy is 4ft 6in high. On its shooulders are two solid cast football players, clutching a ball. At the top is the “figure of victory.”
The original medals given out to the players were made by Fattorini’s. The winners got 15carat gold versions, the losers? Just 9-carat…Each medal holds three shields, representing Lancashire, Yorkshire, and Cheshire, the original Northern Union counties.
The Cup Comes to Lancashire
In 1899, however, Lancashire clubs were anxious to have a piece of the action, worrying, as they always had done, about Yorkshire having all the rugby fun.
To keep the peace between these ancient rivals, the final that year was held at Fallowfield. Oldham’s victory made sure the trophy stayed west of the Pennines beyond the final whistle. The next year, following Salford and Swinton’s victories at the semi final stage, it was decided, for convenience’s sake, to return to south Manchester.
These early matches greatly helped to solidify the camaraderie between the early Northern Union clubs, and the “big day out” of the cup final allowed the new code to make money and broaden its appeal. More importantly, the Fallowfield Finals cultivated a carnival atmosphere where rugby league fans could congregate together and celebrate their sport, whilst serving as an annual fete for all of the Northern Union’s bigwigs.
From Manchester to Wembley
Over the next few years the cup became the centrepiece of rugby league community life, especially after the final made the move to Wembley in 1929. Before then, Lancashire and Yorkshire had continued to fight for custody of the event, and it went back and forth over the Pennines regularly.
It did not return to Fallowfield, but the Manchester district held a few more finals. In 1907, Warrington beat Oldham at Wheater’s Field, Broughton, and four years later, a rain-soaked Salford saw Broughton Rangers gain the cup at the Willows. In 1921, the final returned to Broughton and Leigh won the cup for the first time.
Rugby league has changed a great deal since the Fallowfield finals. In 1900, they played a fifteen-man game with contested scrums. A try was worth 3 points, and players had to have a day job under the “working clause” rule. However, the Challenge Cup final still remains a big day out, a place where the whole of the rugby league family can gather to belt out “Abide With Me” and enjoy a festival of rugby.