Rugby League Week #3: Expansion the key for World Club Series

There are only three places to be this weekend – Warrington, Wigan and St Helens. So naturally, like next year’s big NRL kick-off perhaps, I’ll be in London.

But I will still take a keen interest. Fingers crossed the games are shown on a pub telly somewhere, especially the main feature at Langtree Park.

It’s a match that sold out weeks ago, a sure sign that the league public has bought right into the battle with the Bunnies. Well, the public on this side of the globe anyway. I was amused to read in Gary Carter’s Forty-20 preview of the World Club Series of how Souths are bringing nigh on 23 supporters with them, as opposed to the 2,000 or so that Wigan exported to Sydney in 2014. Twenty-three! Why that’s very nearly an ‘Esky’ful.

It appears that the other games haven’t proved quite so attractive, though popular enough to have Super League general manager Blake Solly purring about future possibilities in an encouraging array of pre-series interviews.

Of course, since the World Club Challenge as was made its return as a one-off fixture in 2000, three years being deemed long enough for the full-on horror show Championship version of 1997 (with notable exceptions in Sheffield and Leeds) to subside, such stories have been trotted out year after year.

The Aussies are taking it seriously now. They could be ready to stage it down there. Moves are afoot to play it in Dubai or Las Vegas or Westeros or somwhere similarly exotic like Bolton. (Insert relevant club name here) must be taking it seriously as they are calling in at Eton and Harrow and promising not to scrap with the locals in nightclubs. You know the sort of caper.

But what feels different now is how much more business-like and expansion-minded the NRL appears to be. The organisation seems suddenly to have awoken to the opportunity, nay necessity, of spreading its net far wider than Dubbo, Balmain and Campbelltown. As even America’s NFL have long since realised, in modern professional sport if you’re not growing then you are going backwards. There is no such thing as standing still.

A few Aussie hacks seem to have caught the flight this time around, which is obviously welcome. And even the BBC has got in on the act by broadcasting the Super League Show nationally on Sunday, at 11.40pm on BBC1 after MOTD2.

The flip side to all this is the equally reliable circling of snarks. It’s nothing but a glorified friendly etc, a position admittedly promoted by the NRL itself, whose own website lists the WCS squads among those of this weekend’s trial games, Brisbane Broncos reserves versus Redcliffe Dolphins and the like.

But honestly, particularly in the UK, why would a rugby league fan able to get there NOT want to watch such talents as Benji Marshall, Antony Milford and Greg Inglis? I didn’t get that when the Queenslanders ran out in front of a few hundred folk in Halifax a couple of decades ago, and I still can’t fathom it now.

Or, thinking about it, maybe I do. Maybe the vast majority of people who watch rugby league aren’t rugby league fans at all. Maybe their attachment to the sport is based chiefly or even solely upon devotion to their team, their gang, their colours. And what a public like that really savours are meaningful tests and bragging rights.

Similarly, for the sporting neutral, events with something at stake are more likely to hold interest. Aye, aye, they say. This seems to matter and is therefore worth a look at. Would Wembley be so consistently full if those NFL teams were here purely on exhibition duty? For a one-off, perhaps, but the three regular season matches that the US clubs are locked into until 2016 at least? Won’t the national stadium be stuffed to the arches next year if, say, the Bunnies and the Broncos are playing for NRL points proper, with Russell Crowe and his Hollywood chums in the posh seats?

I don’t buy the idea that there’s no point to the current expanded World Club Series because, patently, there is. Yes, we know that Brisbane finished eighth and St George-Illawarra didn’t even make the top ten. But there’s clearly value in getting an expanded WCS up and running whatever that takes and they are bound to be intriguing and hopefully entertaining affairs worth watching for their own sake.

Nevertheless, the issue of qualification is valid. Saints and Souths apart, it is a fact that most of the combatants are here simply because they were asked to take part or volunteered to do so, Wigan and Warrington saying yes, where Huddersfield and Castleford could not. No criticism is intended. The four d’oeuvres deserve praise for their vision. But still, it would all resonate so much more powerfully if all six sides really were the pick of both hemispheres.

And with the buzz already hinting at growth in those numbers to eight should this weekend go with the anticipated zing, taking in the Dragons of Catalonia and NZ Warriors, it is an all the more crucial point to get right.

Given how this is supposed to be the World Club Series, the inclusion of teams from Perpignan and Auckland makes sense. But how to work that into a tournament believably billed as best against best?

Well actually, for once, the answer is straightforward. The World Club Series should be a battle between the three highest-placed clubs in England, the three highest-placed clubs in Australia, the highest-placed club in France and the highest-placed club in New Zealand, simple as that.

In future, if more teams come into Super League or the NRL from those latter two countries then the Catalans and NZ Warriors might well be usurped by Toulouse or Wellington but, for now, they would be the best club in that nation, a fact which no one could dispute.

With the floating voter, bums on seats and eyeballs on TV screens in mind, the more that is at stake, the more interest any sport will attract, whether in Warrington, Wigan, St Helens, South Sydney or backstreet boozer in London.

Tone’s tips: Victories for Warrington, Brisbane and Saints, meaning a 2-1 series win for Super League. At least two NRL players arrested for outraging public decency by walking through Hindley in thongs.

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