IS IT possible to be thrashed by Widnes Vikings or Salford Red Devils one week and then beat North Queensland Cowboys or Sydney Roosters the next?
Let’s hope so. What Super League needs this week is for its clubs to be at least competitive in the Dacia World Club Challenge and preferably for two or more of them to win.
The signs are ominous. St Helens, who open the event tomorrow against the Roosters, produced a staggeringly poor display when they were pummelled 44-10 at Salford seven days ago.
That was bad enough, but then Leeds – ahead of their meeting with North Queensland Cowboys in the main event this Sunday – suffered a 56-12 hiding at Widnes Vikings.
That was Leeds’ worst result since a 50-8 home loss to Wigan Warriors four years ago. To add injury to insult, Tom Briscoe, Carl Ablett and Ashton Golding all suffered ankle damage and are likely to miss the big match.
Leeds had already lost their captain – and probably this year’s key player – Danny McGuire in their opening game of the season. Newly recruited hooker Beau Falloon has yet to play a competitive game and Jamie Jones-Buchanan and Stevie Ward have been out since last season, so more injuries was the last thing they needed.
Sending Leeds to Widnes, who play on an artificial pitch, may not have been the wisest thing for the fixture planners to do the week ahead of such a big game, but then again, when have they done anything to help English teams in international competition?
So Leeds will go into the world title match bottom of Super League and without six players who would be in Sunday’s team if fit.
North Queensland, who could field their Grand Final-winning 17, will not be quaking in their cowboy boots. In half-back Johnathan Thurston they include the world’s best player – by some distance – and full-back Lachlan Coote, stand-off Michael Morgan and hooker Jake Granville were all in outstanding form last year.
However, Leeds have bounced back from adversity before and it is at times like this coach Brian McDermott has to earn his corn. Leeds are understrength, but have home advantage and there is certain to be a passionate crowd behind them. The occupants of the South Stand, due to be demolished at the end of the season, have a big job to do.
Leeds surely won’t be as bad again as they were on Sunday and McDermott has proved time and again he can get a team up for a big occasion. In 2012 Leeds lost their final match of the regular season 48-24 at Huddersfield Giants, but won their next four to retain the Super League title.
A Leeds victory looks unlikely, but it is North Queensland’s first serious game of the year and the conditions won’t suit them. Rhinos should at least be competitive, as they were with a similarly makeshift team against New Zealand last October.
Saints, on the other hand, have a history of being humbled against Aussie opposition, despite the occasional World Club win.
They were crushed 39-0 by South Sydney last year, but the Roosters have problems of their own, not least the controversy which has ruled stand-off Mitchell Pierce out of tomorrow’s game, much to home mascot St Bernard’s relief.
They have endured a rough pre-season and might be vulnerable. Saints will also be better than they were last week and if they get their game right on the night they are capable of pulling off what would be considered a shock.
Realistically though, Wigan probably have the best chance of recording a win for Super League. They are in reasonably good form, having won their opening two league games and the elements will suit them.
On an even playing field Brisbane Broncos, pipped by North Queensland in last year’s NRL Grand Final, would be strong favourites. They are the better team and won – in extra-time – at Wigan last year, but the DW Stadium pitch was a swamp for the Super League opener against Catalans and if conditions are similar on Saturday that could be a leveller.
All three of the English teams have upset the odds in the past, but the prospects of them ending the Aussies’ early stranglehold on the expanded competition this weekend look slim.