Damian Irvine writes that Cronulla have the chance to make history today.
Rugby League is now a game of the haves and have nots more than ever. That discussion is for another day but while there are still Rochdale Hornet stories occurring the hearts of true League supporters, whether in the UK or in Australasia, will always be warm.
This weekend Wigan will host the Cronulla Sharks for the title of the best club Rugby League side in the world. It’s a prestigious honour to be the best side in your sport and we shouldn’t talk down the World Club Challenge at all in my opinion. The truth is, Wigan is a club of esteem and success that dwarves Cronulla’s history in their respective competitions. Financially and on field the Sharks have challenged and aspired over their 45-year history to finally win their maiden title last season. Wigan added to their trophy cabinet and decorated history with an impressive title win at the same time whilst rarely, if ever, having to worry if the gates will be locked on Monday morning.
Cronulla supporters have never taken anything for granted and they certainly are not taking the title of premiers for granted. Good numbers have travelled the massive distance to be here this weekend because they, of all fans, understand what it means, what a rare treasure being champions is, and they cherish the chance to see their team play at the highest pinnacle, to challenge for the world title.
There are many stories of redemption in the Cronulla squad and staff that will face Wigan on Sunday, perhaps none better than Sharks playmaker Chad Townsend. If anyone needs to hear how important playing a match against Wigan in the UK for the world title is to a player, ask Chad. It was only a couple of seasons ago that Chad, a local junior who appeared to plateau in his development at the Sharks from a leading National Youth Competition half, Townsend was shunted from the club by Shane Flanagan, a man desperate for quick wins at the time in the face of a self inflicted “ anus horribilis”.
Off to Auckland went Chad, a path that sees many promising first graders, halves especially, end their careers as journeymen. Townsend applied himself and grew as a man and player during his time away from the Shire and it was a credit to him as a person, and also to coach Flanagan that he returned to the club and picked up a premiership ring in return. The realisation of an error, or the lack of ego demonstrated by Shane Flanagan to understand his error and seek out Townsend for a return was a masterstroke, a world class piece of recruitment and squad management and showed a composure and humbleness that would never have been possible for his mentor Ricky Stuart were he in the same position. This one piece of business in my opinion demonstrated the maturity and lessons Flanagan learned from his suspension from the game and is just one example of why he arrives at Wigan as NRL champion coach playing for the world title.
The Sharks will be committed Sunday, as will the Wigan side. Most pre-season trials around this period in Australia are seriously vigorous so a full competitive hit out will not affect the team and they will be ready and prepared. The team are making the right noises about saying they are here to win, they didn’t travel to far to lose etc. I do believe that, however, I have a big question over their preparation. For a team here to win a massive game on Sunday, I’m not sure days off in the week leading up to it visiting Paris and the sights of London is truly a preparation worthy of ‘we are here to win’. Would members of a grand final squad travel to Brisbane for some sun or Auckland for a…. well Auckland, on a Tuesday or Wednesday before the Sunday match? No. That is a real concern for me. On class, spirit and in terms of wanting the win more, I feel the Sharks should be favorites Sunday. Wigan were impressive last week and will be further advanced in their season preparations, which will show a little more in attack and fluidity during the match. However, defensively the Sharks’ systems, a feature of Flanagan’s coaching, should control their own quarter well enough to avoid too many points against.
As a Shark, I would have preferred a few more attacking ball work, set play,and attacking kicking sessions in the conditions this week over being tourists, and so I envisage a very tight, low-scoring match being decided on completion rates and a penalty kick or two.
Prediction: 10-8 to Wigan, but I hope I’m wrong
Damian Irvine is the fomer chairman of NRL club Cronulla Sharks and achieved the ‘impossible” by saving them financially and leaving the club as one of Sydney’s richest. Now in Football, the Australian was named Best Marketer in UK Football in 2014 while at Notts County and is the UK’s leading rugby league consultant to chairmen, commercial managers and CEOs. Irvine currently works as Head of Commerical Activities at Wycombe Wanderers and can be found on Twitter at @damianirvine