Wigan Warriors v Penrith Panthers: Matt Peet, Ivan Cleary highlight the romance of the World Club Challenge

Drew Darbyshire
Matt Peet Wigan Wariors Ivan Cleary Penrith Panthers Alamy

Wigan Warriors coach Matt Peet (left) and Penrith Panthers boss Ivan Cleary (right)

Matt Peet was just eight years old when he was inspired by his local heroes as Wigan welcomed Australian giants Brisbane to town. And now as head coach of his hometown club, he’s hoping to inspire the next generation.

The Cherry and Whites didn’t manage the victory at Central Park on that October night in 1992, going down to a 22-8 defeat. They did, however, pull off one of the great British sporting triumphs two years later when they stunned the Broncos 20-14 in front of a 54,220 crowd in their own back yard.

Peet, now 39, grew up on the terraces during a golden era for Wigan, watching his beloved club pick up trophy after trophy as they established themselves as a dominant force in rugby league.

Peet, who has already won the Challenge Cup, League Leaders’ Shield and Super League title in his first two years in charge, has a chance to add a fifth star on the club’s crest this Saturday night as the Warriors host NRL kings Penrith Panthers at a sold-out DW Stadium.

“I can remember going to the one when Wigan faced Brisbane at Wigan,” Peet told Love Rugby League when asked about his standout World Club Challenge memories.

“The excitement was similar to this team (Penrith) coming over here. The Brisbane team at the time was the standout best team, they were a dominant team, multiple winners, international players and as a fan, you turn up wanting to see Wigan win but also to see the best players in the world play against your local heroes. I think that’s what excites people about this game.

“Obviously I’ve been involved in the ones against St George Illawarra and Cronulla more recently, but the one that stands out to me growing up was Brisbane at home.”

‘There’s been a buzz around the town for quite a while now’

Wigan Warriors captain Liam Farrell lifts Super League trophy Alamy
Wigan captain Liam Farrell lifts the Super League trophy at Old Trafford

Warriors captain Liam Farrell is the only remaining player at the club to win the World Club Challenge previously, having featured in their home triumph over Cronulla back in 2017.

Farrell, a born and bred Wiganer, knows just how much welcoming the Australian champions means to the town – and the history behind the showpiece event.

“There’s been a buzz around the town for quite a while now, obviously it’s been sold out for over a month,” Farrell said.

“I don’t why I’m always so amazed by Wigan fans, they just seem to turn out in numbers whenever a big game comes around.

“We’re grateful for their support, they are there for any big game, so I’m sure it’ll be the same this weekend. It’s going to make for an unbelievable atmosphere so it is one we’re really looking forward to.”

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Penrith, meanwhile, have never won the World Club Challenge. However, they head into the mouth-watering clash as three-peat winners of the NRL.

The Panthers lost to Wigan in 1991, Bradford Bulls in 2004 and at home to St Helens in 2023 – something they are hoping to change come the close of play on Saturday night.

“It’s one thing we haven’t been able to do,” Panthers coach Ivan Cleary said. “Only 12 teams have actually won it, we’ve had three goes of it in our history and obviously last year we missed out on it, so it’ll be nice to be the first Panthers team to get one.

“If you look through the list of winners, only the big clubs have been multiple winners – Roosters, Wigan, Melbourne Storm, Leeds, St Helens – so for us to be on that list would be pretty cool.”

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Wigan Warriors v Penrith Panthers: The best versus the best underlined by mutual respect

Nathan Cleary Penrith Panthers Alamy
Nathan Cleary (centre) celebrating Penrith’s Grand Final success in 2023 with his team-mates

The Super League champions versus their NRL counterparts. Northern hemisphere meets southern hemisphere. It’s the best versus the best from the only two full-time professional rugby league competitions in the world.

And while with that there is a huge sporting rivalry, there is an underlying respect between Wigan and Penrith, as explained by Peet and Cleary at the pre-match press conference at the DW Stadium earlier this week.

“We gave it our best last year and St Helens were too good for us on the night,” Cleary said. “Obviously losing, you want to make up for it, we are fortunate enough to get another opportunity.

“We are so grateful to be involved in this game and to be able to come over and play at such a great stadium. I’m old enough to come through when Wigan were such a powerhouse, Graham Lowe was actually my first coach so I heard all about it from him back in the day.

“It’s great to see Wigan back on top and back in this game, so for us to be able to play these guys is something really special and we’ll be giving it our best and obviously we want to win the game.

“We’re just really stoked to be here and be part of this occasion. I’m sure Matt (Peet) and Liam (Farrell) would concur, you don’t get invited to this game, you have to earn it. It’s so hard to win a Championship, you’ve got to play well all the way through the year and you’ve still got to win knockout games, semi-finals and Grand Finals so I think both of us have earned this right.

“The World Club Challenge sort of went quiet for a few years through Covid and whatnot, but I think it’s back in its rightful place and I’m really looking forward to it.”

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Peet paid some classy words to Penrith, who have spent the last week in England training at Manchester City’s state-of-the-art facilities to prepare for the match.

“I just want to put on record what Penrith have done in committing to this competition over the last two seasons,” Peet said. “Ivan mentions about putting this game back where it belongs, but that’s testament to them.

“The English teams crave this fixture, but it’s a big commitment from them, particularly to come to the other side of the world, they didn’t have to do that.

“I just think it’s credit to them as an organisation and it’s clear what their culture standards for, that’s why they get the success that they do.”

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Cleary, 52, grew up watching the World Club fixtures – just like Peet did. The Australian is aiming to become the first Penrith coach to be crowned a world champion.

He added: “I’ve always watched these games from many years ago growing up as a kid, so just to be here, it’s a big game and you don’t play for a World Championship every day, do you? I think both teams will show what it means on Saturday night.”

There will be more than 24,000 in attendance at a sold-out DW Stadium on Saturday, with the game being shown live on the BBC and Sky Sports, 8pm kick-off.

QUIZ: Can you name every British player to have scored a try in a World Club Challenge?