LEEDS RHINOS will be facing “the best team I have ever seen” if the World Club Challenge showdown with Melbourne Storm goes ahead, chief executive Gary Hetherington says.
Almost two weeks after being crowned European champions, Rhinos are still waiting for confirmation of the annual match-up between the Grand Final winners from Super League and Australia’s NRL.
Melbourne are unwilling to travel to England and have arranged a pre-season game in Brisbane against North Queensland Cowboys, who they beat in this year’s NRL title decider, on the weekend initially pencilled in for the world championship match.
Rhinos have arranged to play the world title game at Leeds United’s Elland Road on February 24 or 25, but Hetherington has made it clear they are prepared to travel to Melbourne if Storm refuse to come here.
The Yorkshire Evening Post understands Storm officials are close to agreeing to host the fixture, with the weekends either side of the original date being under consideration, but a Rugby Football League spokesman stressed no decision has yet been made.
“We are still in talks with the NRL and the clubs involved,” he said.
Hetherington insisted he has not been in discussions with Melbourne or the NRL and is waiting to hear if the tie will be given the green light.
Fixtures for the 2018 Betfred Super League season are due to be announced early next month and an answer is expected before then.
Hetherington said he will have “mixed emotions” if the game is played in Australia.
“It would be disappointing not to play the game here, particularly having made an arrangement with Leeds United,” he said.
“They have been terrific in their support of that arrangement and the chance for all our fans to come and see us try and do what no other team has done, which is win a fourth world title.
“On the other hand, I have always said for the World Club Challenge to further develop it has to be played outside England in the southern hemisphere or other venues around the world.
“I think this Melbourne team is the best team I have ever seen and the ultimate challenge is to beat them and beat them on their own ground.”
Rhinos have already faced Melbourne three times for the world title.
Leeds won at Elland Road in 2008, but Melbourne gained revenge on the same ground in 2010 and again three years later at Headingley.
“Playing them over there would be an enormous challenge, but an exciting one,” Hetherington admitted.
“We understand the size of the task, with the travel and having to play games either side of it which is what we would have to do.
“It makes it a very challenging prospect, but one we would look forward to.”
The World Club Challenge was expanded into a three-game series in 2015, but reduced to two matches for this year’s match-ups.
League leaders Castleford Tigers, who were beaten by Rhinos in the Grand Final, are due to be the second Super League club taking part.
They are keen to face Australian opposition at the Jungle and it is understood they could still be involved, possibly with a home fixture against Brisbane Broncos on the same weekend as the World Club Challenge.
Rhinos are three-time world champions having also beaten Canterbury Bulldogs in 2005 and Manly Sea Eagles five years ago. Melbourne have also won the title three times, having beaten St Helens in 2000, though their 2010 victory was taken away due to breaches of the NRL’s salary cap.