Warrington and Wigan breathed life into the beleaguered World Club Series with their respective wins against Brisbane Broncos and Cronulla Sharks over the weekend.
If it seems strange to think of a competition as beleaguered in only its third year, then that’s rugby league for you. Yet it’s fair to say that a competition which had registered six NRL wins to Super League’s zero up until this point – the majority of these fairly heavy defeats – was rightly under question.
That issue has now been addressed, as Super League’s best dispatched their NRL opponents, fairly comprehensively as it turned out.
However, it would be overstating things to say that the victories of Warrington and Wigan had removed all doubt about the World Club Series as a concept.
Questions are firstly raised over the fact that the games are always played in the UK. Since the resumption of the World Club Challenge as a regular fixture all but one of the games has been played in the UK. While the Super League champions initially played away from home this offered little more than a figleaf of neutrality – Leeds Rhinos, for example, playing at Elland Road in 2005, 2009 and 2010 – and in 2011 this was abandoned with Super League sides now playing in their own stadiums. This naturally puts the NRL visitors at a huge disadvantage.
Secondly, NRL sides are – allegedly – also disadvantaged by biased refereeing from British officials. Certainly there were some debatable calls – the decisions to award Tom Lineham’s try for Warrington and the decision to disallow Kurt Capewell’s potential score against Wigan stand out – but allegations of cheating cannot be sustained. “The better team won” said Sharks boss Shane Flanagan in a gracious and balanced post-match interview. “We had a few decisions go against us, but it wouldn’t have made a difference to the outcome”.
Thirdly though, the legitimacy of the competition is brought into question when we consider the NRL clubs who turned down the opportunity to play. Most notably Melbourne Storm, last season’s Minor Premiers and beaten Grand Finalists, declined to take part so as not to disrupt their preparations for the upcoming NRL season. According to some reports, as many as nine other clubs also declined invitations – Canterbury Bulldogs and Newcastle Knights flatly refused, while South Sydney Rabbitohs and St George-Illawarra Dragons would have played given more notice.
The result of this is that our runners-up, League Leaders and beaten Grand Finalists Warrington, played not against their opposite numbers the Melbourne Storm, but against Brisbane – a side that finished fifth in the NRL table and were knocked out in the second round of the play-offs. Our third-ranked side – Hull – had no opponents at all.
These are just some of the reasons why, it is often argued, Australia cares nothing for the competition. That’s certainly exaggerating – you’ll never convince me to believe that the Sharks or the Broncos didn’t care about winning and weren’t bothered about the results, and it’s disrespectful to Wigan and Warrington to suggest it – but it is a fact that the World Club contest is taken more seriously over here than over there. It might be fair to say that what the British game views as rugby league’s equivalent to the UEFA Champions League, the Australian game views as the equivalent to the UEFA Super Cup.
You can’t force the NRL sides to take the competition more seriously, or to afford it a higher a priority. However, you can – now that Wigan and Warrington have kept the World Club Series alive for another day – go some way towards addressing the points above.
Stage the next World Club Series in Australia. At once you remove the Super League home advantage, perceived refereeing bias, and you might even persuade more NRL sides to take part. Unfortunately though while I suspect the RFL and Super League clubs would love to do this – Wigan and Warrington had proposed playing this series, as well as each other in Super League’s opening round, Down Under – it all depends on the willingness of Australia to host. If so the chances are we’ll be back in the North of England next year.
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