In its current format, the World Club Challenge proves nothing other than which side has gelled better to start the season. It is a glorified practise match and it shows in the reported flagging ticket sales for Friday’s game.
It was designed as the game to decide the best of the best – pitting the two premiers against each other in a struggle for ultimate supremacy.
And I’m sure we would all love it to mean something. For it to be a true contest between the premiers of each of the two major competitions. For it to be the crowning glory in the club rugby league season. But, the truth of the matter is that it can never be this without a major overhaul and here’s why.
The teams that take the field on Friday will be 25% or more different to those who won the respective grand finals last October. For Leeds, six players from last year’s decider have either not made the journey to Australia or are no longer at the club. This includes the Man of the Match – Danny McGuire.
For the Storm, at least four players – Cronk, McLean, Harris and Griffin are no longer there.
For the Storm, Friday’s game would actually have come before their first pre-season hit-out had they not hurriedly organised a closed-door trial against the Newcastle Knights last Wednesday. As it was, several of the stars including Billy Slater, Cameron Smith, Will Chambers and Josh Addo-Carr didn’t even play in that game anyway. Nor did Curtis Scott or Brodie Croft who are expected to have big roles this year. Quite simply, should the Storm lose, they will have a legitimate claim to being underdone, especially when you consider that rep stars such as Smith and Slater have only just resumed full training.
Leeds, on the other hand, face a different challenge. They have already played two rounds of their 2018 season. Now they have to shift their focus from trying to win a premiership to travel to the other side of the globe and play a team that may or may not take the game seriously based on their current preparation levels, the fitness of their roster and the fact that their main focus will undoubtedly be on round one.
Where is it? If this were truly a contest for a major trophy as the powers that be want us to believe, the media would be abuzz with any story related to the game.
The top rugby league stories, as far as my research goes, on the media sites seem to be about the Bulldogs board, what position Inglis will play and how the new recruits at each club are tracking.
Fair enough stories – don’t get me wrong – but, I only found one story on the game and it was about the Storm number 7 jersey. That was it.
The clubs are trying to promote the game, but, if you have to be looking at their websites, Twitter accounts, Facebook pager or whatever else they have to see this then chances are you’re already affiliated with one club or the other and thus, already going, or not, to the game.
For a player’s career statistics, the World Club Challenge is somewhat of a puzzler. It is, quite simply, its own category of matches. Sort of a club appearance, but not really. Sort of a trophy, but not really. Sort of celebrated. Sort of ignored.
All these points bring us to the crux of the issue – meaning. What, if anything, does this game mean? What does it mean to the clubs? What does it mean to the fans? What does it mean to the leagues? And what does it mean to the media?
The answer is different things to different people, but, it clearly isn’t meaning what this game was intended to mean when it was conceived.
To the clubs, it means something different depending on who is playing. To an NRL club who rates themselves with a chance in the season ahead, it’s never going to be more than a trial game when it is held less than a month before the season proper. If they are keen to fill out the trophy cabinet a bit, they might load up their side and go for it, but, their main focus will always be round one.
It’s hard, from this side of the world, to speak for how the Super League clubs feel, but, it’s also hard to imagine that they’re viewing it as more important than their next clash for points.
To the fans, it’s a fun game with less riding on it than a regular season game. They want to win and if their team wins, they will pretend the trophy means more than it does, but if they lose, there will hardly be a general feeling of frustration and melancholy such as a lost grand final would generate.
To the leagues, it’s a potential money maker. If they get bums in seats and sponsors on board, they make money just like any other game but the NRL isn’t exactly promoting the game either so maybe not.
The media, as I’ve already touched on, is just silent. There are bigger games on the horizon.
This is a difficult one, but the first thing that occurs to me is that the NRL season was shortened by one week (although this did involve dropping a bye) this year. Could this week be useful in making this game means something?
It obviously has to be in the weeks immediately after the grand final wins to make it the same squads.
How about a home leg and an away leg with away point counting double in the event of a tie?
Or how about a Davis Cup style system where the first time two teams meet, a coin is flipped for home advantage and the next time they swap? This is the fourth meeting between the Storm and the Rhinos, they would have played in each country twice under this system, not three times in England and once in Australia.
The solution is not obvious, but, one thing is clear – if we want a meaningful game, it needs a major overhaul or we may as well scrap it.