Can the World Club Challenge survive and thrive?

MARTYN SADLER, the editor of League Express, considers the place of the World Club Challenge in Rugby League.


The World Club Challenge was a great game, but it was a shame that St Helens couldn’t win it.

Last week the Super League Chief Executive Robert Elstone was widely quoted as saying he would like the NRL clubs to bear some of the risk of staging the game.

The current situation is that all the cost of staging the game is borne by the Super League clubs, with the Australian clubs receiving a hefty guaranteed sum for coming to this country.

That seems to be a horribly skewed relationship to me, and obviously Elstone feels the same way.

But the other thing that struck me about the game on Saturday night, apart from the action on the field, is how little commercial support it attracts.

Betfred’s sponsorship was surprisingly low key, to the point where I wasn’t even aware that the Super League sponsor was involved in the game, and the pitch looked incredibly bare, with no logos, no sponsors’ name, no anything.

Anyone who was watching the game on TV wouldn’t have known that it was being played for a major trophy.

If we contrast that with the Gold Coast Stadium that staged the All Stars game in Australia earlier on Saturday, the pitch looked vibrant, both with pitch markings and with sponsors’ logos.

For some reason we have stopped marking grid lines on Super League pitches in this country, which makes our pitches look completely anonymous. It isn’t a good look if we are trying to present ourselves as a thriving sport.

Now is surely the time to reconsider the place of the World Club Challenge in Rugby League for clubs on both sides of the world.

How important is it?

The NRL clubs, for the most part, still regard it as a trial game, albeit quite an important one.

They have certainly taken it more seriously in recent years, particularly when the Sydney Roosters under Trent Robinson have been involved, but you still get the feeling that their commitment to the concept depends on which club actually wins the NRL Premiership.

It was notable that when Melbourne Storm won the NRL in 2017, they were unwilling to travel to Leeds at the start of the following season, and the Rhinos went to Melbourne instead.

Of course in one sense that isn’t something we should complain about.

Ideally the World Club Challenge should be played every other year in the southern hemisphere.

But what happens at the moment is that the NRL clubs appear to dictate both the timing and the location of the game.

And in many respects we don’t seem to have made much progress in raising the status of the match.

A few years ago we had three NRL clubs coming to this country for a round-robin tournament over a weekend, but that idea quickly fell away, partly because we struggled to be competitive against the NRL clubs.

At one time British clubs used to regularly win the World Club Challenge.

From 2004 to 2008, for example, Bradford twice, Leeds twice and St Helens each won the trophy over five successive seasons.

But Manly broke the spell in 2009 and since then Australian clubs have won ten out of the twelve World Club Challenge games.

So what caused the sudden reversal in fortunes for the Super League clubs?

Part of the reason, I think, is that the date of the game was moved back towards the end of February.

Whereas at one time, the World Club Challenge was played as a curtain raiser to the season in early February, with the opening round of Super League set for the following weekend, its impact is inevitably lessened for Super League clubs when it comes in the fourth week of the season.

And although some people might suggest that the Super League clubs should be better positioned to win it, after they have played their first three games of the new season, that is in fact very little help to them at all.

Whereas St Helens have had to focus on their first three Super League matches since the start of the year, Sydney Roosters had the luxury of concentrating solely on Saturday night’s game.

In those three league games St Helens suffered injury losses to Mark Percival, Lachlan Coote and Regan Grace, while the Roosters had a clean bill of health.

And of course the fixture planners didn’t do St Helens any favours by making them play on the previous Sunday, just six days before the big game.

Wouldn’t it have been better to schedule Saints’ preceding match three days earlier, on the Thursday night, giving them nine days to prepare?

Part of the problem for me is that the World Club Challenge now interferes with the start of the Super League season.

If it weren’t for the World Club Challenge, St Helens would have been playing the Catalans Dragons at home last weekend.

I suspect that the prospect of seeing Israel Folau making his away debut in Super League would have probably been almost as compelling as seeing the Roosters for the St Helens supporters.

I’m actually a great supporter of the World Club Challenge.

But I would like to see it move to a more sensible time of the year, perhaps a fortnight or so after the respective Grand Finals, with the NRL and Super League taking joint ownership of the game. When you consider that the NRL is about to announce a $30 million profit for its last financial year, which is a figure Super League could only dream about, the logic of Super League clubs bearing all the risk of the event seems truly perverse.

But then I’ve been saying that for many years, and nothing much changes.

That’s Rugby League for you.

Read Martyn Sadler’s ‘Talking Rugby League’ column every week in League Express. This article is a revised version of a recent League Express article.