when he was pushing for an expanded World Club Challenge Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington probably didn’t envisage it involving St Helens, Wigan Warriors and Warrington Wolves.
Hetherington has long been a fan of the annual showdown between Super League’s champions and the best side from Australia’s NRL and has been keen for the fixture to be taken Down Under and increased to involve more clubs. Ironically, after Leeds appeared in five World Club matches in six seasons, they failed to qualify in either 2014 – when it was staged in Australia – or this year, which will see three sides from each hemisphere face off.
The new format begins tomorrow when Warrington take on St George-Illawarra Dragons in what should be a thriller at HJ Stadium. Wigan face Brisbane Broncos at the DW on Saturday and the series concludes with the World Club Challenge between champions St Helens and South Sydney Rabbitohs at a sold-out Langtree Park on Sunday night.
Every time a European club faces one from the NRL, Super League’s reputation is on the line and this year is no different. As Leeds have found out in the past, it is something of a no-win situation for the Super League club or clubs. If they get a victory, the Aussies aren’t trying; if the NRL sides win it just underlines how superior that competition is.
There’s no doubt the NRL is a tougher, more intense competition than Super League, but the gap probably isn’t anything like as wide as it was way back in 1997. That was the year of the ill-fated World Club Championship, which involved the 12 Super League clubs and every team from the NRL and was a disaster, certainly from a European point of view, with four Aussie sides making up the semi-finalists.
It was a low point for the game over here, to rank alongside 1982 when Great Britain were utterly destroyed by the touring Kangaroos. Of the 61 matches between teams from the opposite hemispheres, NRL clubs won all but seven. The fact Super League’s victors were Wigan (twice), Sheffield Eagles, Oldham Bears, London Broncos, Paris St Germain, Salford and Leeds illustrates how times have changed.
The tournament lost money as crowds and television viewing fixtures were disappointing – and the credibility of Super League suffered a blow that took years to recover from.
British clubs had done reasonably well in one-off World Club matches before then, mostly played over here at the end of the Australian season when their Grand Final winners were more interested in partying than playing rugby. Wigan’s win in Brisbane 21 years ago was a huge shot in the arm for the British game and results since 1997 have been relatively encouraging. One-off matches between the rival Grand Final champions were revived in 2000 and Super League clubs have won eight out of 15. Since 1887, the score is us 12, them eight.
This year’s series favours the Super League clubs, who are at home and have played a couple of competitive matches, while the NRL has yet to kick off.
Though Premiers South Sydney have made the trip, the two other clubs didn’t have great seasons in 2014, when Brisbane were eighth and St George 11th.
For the concept to grow it needs to involve both sets of Grand Finalists, plus the next highest-ranked side, bt it is England v Australia and that naturally creates interest. The amount of media attention generated this week illustrates the need for meaningful international competition and the new-look series is a step towards that. From small acorns, large oak trees grow and if this weekend is a success it could lead to bigger and better things in the future. Near full-houses seem likely, but the series will only thrive if there are close matches and – at least – a couple of Super League wins.
And if nothing else, kicking their heels at home while three of their main rivals are in high-profile action should act as extra motivation for teams like Leeds come the business end of this season.