New St Helens head coach Paul Wellens spoke to media on Wednesday ahead of their trip to Australia next month for the World Club Challenge against NRL champions Penrith Panthers.
St Helens made it four successive Grand Final victories last season, creating history by becoming the first-ever side to ever accomplish the feat.
Meanwhile, Ivan Cleary’s Penrith made it back-to-back NRL victories in 2022 following their Grand Final triumph over Parramatta Eels.
The World Club Challenge returns for the first time since 2020, where Sydney Roosters claimed the title over St Helens with a 20-12 score at the Totally Wicked Stadium.
The 2023 tie will be broadcast live on Channel 4 with a 7:00am kick-off on Saturday, 18 February.
Paul Wellens on the challenge ahead
Previewing the fixture, Wellens said in press conference: “It’s certainly a different way to start your head coaching career. It’s a really exciting challenge for the group of players.
“I’ve said it a few times now, it’s an opportunity they’ve earned. Not just in the last year, but over the last few years and what they have achieved.
“For this playing group to earn that opportunity and to get the chance to go down and take on the challenge of playing a formidable outfit in Penrith, it’s great for the club and it’s something we’re all super excited about.
“Myself being a new coach now, I don’t envisage changing a great deal but at the same time we have to find ways to find those improvements. We’ve been working hard on that and hopefully that can reflect on our performances not just down under, but for the rest of 2023.”
St Helens the underdogs
Wellens believes his side go into the tie as underdogs, but that is a challenge they have faced in the past.
“One thing I do know about this group, they love a challenge,” he said. “The odds are stacked against them. We go down there as probably underdogs, but this group love that type of challenge. It would be huge for the club to go down there and put on a good performance.
“It’s a great opportunity. A lot of the time, people make comparisons between Super League and NRL and whether players in this competition can play down there and vice versa. This is a great opportunity for us to show as a club how successful we’ve been and how good of a team we are.
“It’s a great opportunity” – Paul Wellens
“We go there, in my mind, with the freedom to go and express ourselves and show who we are as a club. We’ve had a lot of success in recent years playing a certain way.”
Wellens also hopes his side will get the opportunity to face the strongest Penrith outfit possible, including the likes of Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai.
“We want them to play,” he continued.
“We want to give the game the respect it deserves by playing the best players who have helped those two teams win the NRL and Super League titles.
“I don’t know those players personally, but I’m sure given the success they have had, they strike me as very competitive players and in their nature they’ll be desperate to take part and play in the game.”
Paul Wellens previewing the opposition
Wellens admits his side are yet to train specifically for the match, first focussing on their own pre-season with England international players having only returned last week.
“We haven’t really touched on Penrith yet,” he said. “We obviously know we’re going there and have mentioned the challenge that it represents and how we want to approach that challenge.
“The England players who took part in the World Cup only came back this last week. It’s important that we get the team back on the training field, start building our own combinations and working on what makes us a great team first and foremost. Then a bit further down the track, we can look at Penrith and how we feel we can go about exploiting them.”
St George Illawarra Dragons warm-up
St Helens will take on St George Illawarra Dragons in a warm-up a week before their World Club Challenge. The game will be live on Sky Sports on Saturday, February 11.
“It gives us an opportunity to get the team out there and have a good hit-out down under,” Wellens said on the fixture. “It’ll be good to get the guys out there and building some combinations.
“Obviously we’ve got Mark Percival’s testimonial before we fly out, which again will give us another opportunity to do the same.
“But I am looking forward to that game. It’s going to be really crucial in the build-up ahead of playing Penrith.”