The Australian bookmakers were giving St Helens 24 points start and they had the Super League Champions priced at 7/1.
As it turned out, they might as well have been giving away free money.
There were around a thousand St Helens supporters present at the BlueBet Stadium and if they wanted the means to pay for their trip to Australia, all they needed to have done was to pile some cash on their heroes to win the World Club Challenge at those very generous odds.
Despite all the naysayers, I thought that Saints would win, as you can hear if you listen to the Super League Raw livecast that was recorded last Tuesday night, when I predicted a Saints victory (as you can hear from 1hr 22 min into the show). So I’m actually on record saying it. I’m not sure whether I was the only pundit to predict that St Helens would return home triumphant.
I did that because I knew how seriously St Helens coach Paul Wellens had prepared for this game, leaving no stone unturned in analysing their opponents and playing to their own strengths while smothering the Panthers’ attack.
Their plans worked almost perfectly, despite having to survive a late scare when Penrith equalised with a late try by Brian To’o that was coolly converted by Nathan Cleary with less than a minute of normal time remaining.
At that point it was tempting to fear the worst as we went into golden-point time. It reminded me more than anything of the World Cup semi-final, when England drew level with a late try but the Samoans won the game with a late field-goal by Stephen Crichton, who on Saturday was playing for Penrith against St Helens.
This time it was Crichton who would lose the ball in his own half of the field in a strong challenge by Konrad Hurrell, giving St Helens a chance that Lewis Dodd would exploit ruthlessly with his winning field-goal.
You only had to watch the Saints players celebrating after that shot went over the bar, some of them in tears, to understand how much it meant to them. It was a wonderful feeling, not just for the Saints club and their supporters in the stadium, but also for all those fans who were watching at home on television, and not just St Helens fans. Every supporter of a Super League club must have surely been delighted to see Saints going to Australia and showing the Aussies that not only can our best rival their best, but that we can actually beat them.
It was a moment that certainly rivalled Wigan’s 20-14 victory over Brisbane Broncos in 1994, which was the only previous time an English club had gone to Australia and come back with the World Club Challenge trophy.
That victory by Wigan ultimately led to Rupert Murdoch looking to buy the broadcast rights for Rugby League and it led to the creation of Super League.
Will St Helens’ victory in 2023 also have profound consequences?
Well, it’s difficult to imagine that it could have come at a better time, with IMG having taken a 12-year stake in Rugby League last year with a brief to significantly raise the game’s profile and its commercial performance. St Helens have certainly played their part in doing that and I reckon the game owes them an enormous debt in recognition of their achievement.
If Rugby League can’t take advantage of what St Helens have achieved, then I’m afraid it will never do itself any good. Already the 2023 season looks like being a blinder, not just because of the form of the World Club Champions but also because of other teams in Super League rising to the challenge.
The truth is that on Saturday St Helens were the better side and they deserved their success. The Panthers lost the World Club Challenge for the third time.
They lost in 1991 to a brilliant Wigan side at Anfield and again in 2004 to Bradford Bulls in Huddersfield. Both those games were played in England and the Panthers therefore did have the excuse that they had to travel around the world.
I thought it was a serious mistake by their coach Ivan Cleary not to play his strongest side against Parramatta in their first Pre-Season Challenge game, whereas Paul Wellens put out a strong side against St George Illawarra, allowing James Roby to show his mettle, which he again did against the Panthers. Even the Australians are now beginning to understand what an astonishing player Roby is. He still looks to me as though he could play for a few years yet.
One notable feature of Saturday’s game that gave us an insight into which team was going to win it was to watch what happened when the ball came loose. In most cases it was a Saints player who was first to the ball. Their urgency seemed so much greater than Penrith’s.
The only disappointing thing about the game was the attendance of 13,873. That figure was almost 4,000 down on the Panthers’ average attendance of 17,588 in 2022 and it shows that the NRL hasn’t got the slightest idea how to promote the idea of the World Club Challenge. And that’s assuming that the NRL even wants to promote it, given that there was little sign of it doing so. In fact they have gone backwards since the days in 1994 when a crowd of almost 60,000 turned out in Brisbane to see the Broncos’ game against Wigan.
That isn’t good enough. I don’t know what the financial arrangements have been for St Helens’ trip to Australia, but it’s easy to believe that the club will have lost a considerable amount of money in making the trip, depending on whether they were given any guarantees by their hosts.
If the club did lose money in becoming the World Club Champions, that only goes to emphasise what a remarkable achievement this has been.
It’s now time for IMG to get hold of this concept in order to give the World Club Challenge the promotion it deserves.
This article features in Martyn Sadler’s ‘Talking Rugby League’ column in this week’s League Express. To take out a subscription, go to https://www.totalrl.com/league-express/