St Helens coach says Super League needs to prove itself to NRL

James Gordon
St Helens Paul Wellens coach in World Club Challenge

St Helens coach Paul Wellens says they aren’t being given a chance of beating NRL champions Penrith Panthers in the upcoming World Club Challenge.

Saints are Down Under ahead of the match on Saturday week, and they will face NRL side St George-Illawarra Dragons in a warm-up game this weekend.

It’s only the third time this century that the World Club Challenge, between the respective winners of the NRL and Super League, has taken place in Australia.

On the two previous occasions, Melbourne Storm beat Leeds 38-4 in 2018 and Sydney Roosters beat Wigan 36-14 in 2014.

You have to go back to 1994 for the last time an English club won on Australian soil, when Wigan beat Brisbane 20-14 to secure their third World title. Aside from the ill-fated, expanded 1997 World Club Championship, that is the only other time the game has been held Down Under.

That hasn’t stopped the recent dominance of Australian sides though – only two of the last 12 World Club Challenges have been won by English teams.

Super League side out to prove themselves in World Club Challenge

With the NRL having increased its salary cap even further for 2023, it is now more than three times what the Super League teams are permitted to spend.

Such disparity only adds fuel to the fire that the NRL is leaving Super League behind.

But Wellens believes his side can still provide more than a challenge to Penrith, who are the back-to-back NRL winners.

He said: “The stand-out similarity is that people don’t give you much of chance – they don’t think we can come over and beat a team of the calibre of Penrith as they didn’t think we could beat a team of the calibre of Brisbane back then.

“There sometimes seems to be a feeling that the NRL is far beyond the Super League competition. My experience over the years is that we constantly need to prove ourselves and gain that acceptance from people from Down Under.

“I don’t mind it, it’s a challenge and it’s part and parcel of sport at times, you get written off and people talk about you in certain ways. But for all those who do want us to win, we will be doing all we can to put a smile on their faces.”

Wellens references St Helens’ 2007 victory over Brisbane at the Reebok Stadium in Bolton in which he starred as a player.

Paul Sculthorpe was man of the match as Saints came from an 8-6 half time to deficit to win 18-14.

That win was the fourth successive season the World Club Challenge had been won by a Super League side, and Leeds made it five in a row in 2008.

But only Leeds (2012 against Manly) and Wigan (2017 against Cronulla) have won it since then.

MORE: We are confident in our ability: St Helens up for Penrith challenge

Salary cap disparity

Although currently locked in talks over a collective bargaining agreement with its players, the NRL have already announced a number of changes to the salary cap for the 2023 season.

The salary cap limit is increasing by 25% to $12.1m (c£7m), with the cap for top 30 players increasing to $11.45m, a 22% increase from 2022.

The minimum salary for all players in a club’s top NRL squad will grow to $120,000 (c£70,000).

At present, Super League’s salary cap has a finite limit of £2.1m, though there are some exemptions and dispensations including the marquee player rule.

Have St Helens got a chance?

St Helens have been the dominant team in Super League, winning four titles in a row, but it would be an upset if they can turn over Penrith.

That’s meant as no slight to St Helens – it’s just the reality of the situation given the difference between Super League and the NRL in terms of finances now.

That gap has grown over the past 20 years and the challenge is on Super League to bridge it.

It will be a tough baptism for Wellens in his first competitive game as coach, and it is a shame that neither Justin Holbrook or Kristian Woolf were able to take on the NRL champions during their respective tenures.

We have seen some evidence that Super League teams can compete with their NRL counterparts, such as in the last match between St Helens and Sydney Roosters in the UK, but it would appear Wigan’s 2017 win – the only by an English club since 2012 – is a mere anomaly in terms of recent meetings.

The 2023 World Club Challenge is being televised live by both Sky Sports and Channel 4 on Saturday February 18, with a 7am kick-off.

READ MORE: St Helens v St George Illawarra: Squad news, TV coverage & predictions