DOES Wigan Warriors’ World Club Challenge loss to St George Illawarra mean Engage Super League is a poor competition?
No, it doesn’t.
Does it mean the European game (we can’t call it English or even British any more) still lags well behind Australia’s NRL? Yes it does, but, realistically, we all knew that anyway.
Wigan had just about everything – other than the absence of two of their three star Aussie signings and England prop Stuart Fielden – in their favour last Sunday, yet were still second best.
Unlike previous WCC games in the Super League era, it was played on their home ground. They had two competitive games beforehand to prepare – without having to suffer a shortened pre-season – and the opposition went into it without a warm-up match in this country.
St George only arrived in England a week before the match and were without their “super coach” Wayne Bennett, who had to return to Australia due to a family emergency.
Wigan should have won, particularly after going 8-0 ahead early on, but still – like Leeds Rhinos in each of the two previous seasons – they came up short.
Wigan weren’t bad by any means, but St George were frighteningly good. Frightening because their performance illustrated, yet again, exactly how far Super League has to go before the northern hemisphere game can have any hope of matching the Aussies.
The Super League champions are a good team, technically very strong with excellent players. They are also well-coached by Michael Maguire, someone who was involved with title-winning NRL sides.
But St George were clearly better and they out-Wiganed Wigan. They showed great resilience, moved the ball about in fine style, took their chances and defensively were superb, keeping the home team scoreless in the second half.
It was a disappointing result for Super League, though many supposedly neutral fans will have been pleased, not so much with St George’s victory, but to see the increasingly-arrogant Wigan taken down a peg.
Their invasion of the Cas-Wakefield derby in Cardiff was a disgrace.
Defeat last week doesn’t make Wigan a poor team. Transplanted to the NRL, they would probably win their fair share of matches, as would the top four or five Super League sides.
They fully contributed to an enthralling, highly-entertaining encounter which must have impressed any non rugby league fan watching on Sky, but St George are used to matches of that intensity on a more regular basis and that showed.
The WCC – and indeed Warrington’s game away to St Helens last Friday evening – was in sharp contrast to the previous night’s Super League fare.
The clash between Crusaders and Bradford Bulls was poor, at best – though Bulls’ third try, scored by Shaun Ainscough on a power play close to the home team’s line, would have been worth the admission money alone.
The pace of the game was slow, there were far too many errors and one or two players looked out of place in a top-flight game. No doubt a crowd of less than 3,000 didn’t help.
The quality of that game was well below anything you’d see in the NRL, but at least Crusaders’ late rally, which saw them score two tries in the final couple of minutes, added up to an exciting finish.
The standard in Super League is variable, but – in terms of individual results – the competition is more unpredictable now than it has ever been.
There were at least two shocks last weekend – Quins’ win at Leeds and Catalan Dragons’ amazing victory away to Hull KR – and with just three weeks gone, most teams have recorded at least one win and one loss.
Wigan, Harlequins and Castleford are the only unbeaten sides – and the defending champions drew their opening match – while Hull are the only side yet to record a victory.
Every side is genuinely capable of beating every other on their day. That was proved last year when Harlequins won at Wigan.
It makes for an exciting competition, though again, the NRL has the edge in terms of the overall outcome.
The World Club Challenge was sponsored by Probiz, which is Castleford’s major backers this year.
The firm’s founder, Feisal Nahaboo, handed out the gongs after last Sunday’s game and was conspicuously wearing a Tigers scarf.
Despite the advances Cas seem to be making on and off the field, the day he gets to support his adopted team in a World Club Challenge seems as far away as it has ever been.
Though the number of surprise results is increasing, the overall outcome remains the same. Realistically, there are, at most, five teams with a serious chance of winning the title this year and for most, simply qualifying for the play-offs would be an achievement.
Contrast that to the situation in Australia, where the title tends to change hands each year – and it is possible for a side to go from at or around the bottom of the table one year to a Grand Final the next.
The British game does have good players, as St George found out last weekend. The likes of Sam and Joel Tomkins would get in just about any NRL team.
Brits Sam Burgess and Gareth Ellis have both proved a massive success Down Under and are rated among the best players in the competition.
The difference is that the Aussie depth of talent is far greater and they, therefore, don’t have the same reliance on overseas players – they can pick and choose the very best.
They also play far fewer matches, but of a higher standard, have a full pre-season and get to prepare in warm and dry conditions, in contrast to the situation over here.
Super League remains a strong, entertaining competition in its own right, which deserves far more media coverage than it actually gets.
But compared with the NRL, there’s still a world of difference.