As Leeds and Melbourne gear up for their 3rd World Club Challenge meeting, what future does this fixture have? And as David Bowie may ponder ‘Where are we now?’
If the Rhinos win it again they will be crowned, by Eddie and Stevo at least, the best team on the planet’. Que the cries of ‘how great it is for Steve McNamara’, ‘the Aussies will be quaking in their boots’ and proof ‘that the gap between Super League and the NRL is narrowing’. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.
This is the same Leeds side that lost to Bradford Catalan, Hull, Huddersfield, St Helens, Warrington, Wakefield and Wigan at various points last season. So before the game is even played there are questions raised about the validity of a game between two play-off winners.
Subsequently, the fixture has strong parallels with the European Super Cup in Football. This is the early season fixture played in Monaco between the Champions League winners and the Europa Cup winners. Yet, this is never portrayed as a battle to find the best team in Europe. And no side has every taken its seriously, and both participants would rather not be there.
Nevertheless In the past decade the World Club Challenge has produced some truly memorable moments. St Helens breathed new life into the English game after the disastrous 2000 World Cup, on a magical night in Bolton defeating an all conquering Brisbane side. We had the introduction of Sonny Bill Williams in 2005, and a year later Stuart Fielden’s career peaked as he smashed the West Tigers to little pieces.
However since then the concept has gone rather stale. The standard of rugby, Manly last year in particular, sets a worrying trend, particularly when it’s being advertised as the two best teams in the world. State of Origin it certainly isn’t.
Whilst I am in no doubt our game has come a long way from the failed 1997 Championship, you’d be hard pushed to find anyone who would deny that the NRL and the Super League are worlds apart. Whilst we give away our sponsorship for free, the NRL has just signed a billion pound deal which is set to push their salary cap to $8 million.
As the gap widens the World Club Challenge will lose more of its appeal. That’s why Gary Hetherington is eager to expand the competition and has promised an announcement before the Melbourne fixture. At the minute the competition is suffering from another identity crisis. Just what is it there for? Is it a test of the two best teams in the world? Is it an attempt to improve the standard of Super League? Or is it an attempt to raise the profile of Rugby League in England? On these three counts it fails the credibility test. Furthermore it will be difficult to judge this as a marker for the World Cup and English prospects; with Sinfield and Hall the only players due to make the England starting line up.
English commentators are in agreement that an English team has to test themselves down under. Both Wigan and Leeds declared they would be willing to play in Australia, only to be rebuffed by the NRL. The argument is made that Australians would not turn out for the game. Yet the infamous 1994 clash between Wigan and Brisbane still holds the record WCC attendance at a jaw dropping 54,220. And I’d be confident that the ARL could find a bigger sponsor than Probiz or Heinz Big Soup to fund the venture.
Then of course, there is the timing, which at the moment is used as a pre-season game. If the Australians are 6 weeks behind us, this is the equivalent of Leeds playing the WCC on New Years Day, against a Melbourne team 4 weeks into the NRL competition. This dilutes the prospect of it being the two best teams, hitting their peak, and gives the English clubs another advantage.
However, an expanded World Club challenge mid season is out of the question. The unstoppable juggernaut of State of Origin makes it impossible to ask the NRL to add another competition. The ideal time to play the game would be after the Grand Final, and between International competitions. This would guarantee a sell out as fans flock to see the newly crowned champions, on either side of the world.
Whilst we can do little to change these aspects, we could use the opportunity to expand the game in bigger areas. Why not take the game to London, Wales and France. It could be an exciting trip for the fans, plus the chance to take the game to new areas, whilst quelling any possible home advantage. Maybe this idea is too good for the RFL to use.
These are just some of the problems which arise from trying to pit two teams from two continents together. Until the fixture has more importance than the League and Cup (which it did for Wigan in 1987) I suspect both the NRL and Super League clubs will be left dissatisfied.
Lest we forget the finest hour in the history of Britain’s most famous club came in this competition. Wigan fans will never forget their wins against all odds at Central Park and the ANZ. But will the history books look back on Leeds’ dominance of the WCC be as fondly? I very much doubt it.