World Club Series: Saints fired up to finish top of growing World

Annual contest between England and Australia now involves six clubs, with St Helens versus South Sydney the showpiece.  But could it expand still further, asks Dave Hadfield

Click to follow

The revamped World Club Series has already achieved something no other competition could do: it has made the Wigan coach, Shaun Wane, support St Helens.

The Super League champions will contest the title of the world’s best rugby league team when they play the Australian National Rugby League  champions South Sydney Rabbitohs on Sunday.

In the expanded six-team format, that means the other two home teams, Wigan and Warrington, are confined to supporting roles. The Wolves meet St George Illawarra on Friday night, while Wigan take the field against their  old enemies, the Brisbane Broncos, Saturday.

As Saints’ captain, Jon Wilkin, acknowledges of his team’s sold-out game against Souths at Langtree Park: “This is the one that matters. You don’t get many chances to call yourselves the best team in the world, so it’s massive.”

Every year between 2000 and 2014 that stand-alone encounter between the British and Australian champions was the World Club Challenge. So what are the other two games about?

It is part of an impulse to broaden international club competition, which goes back a long way – in 1997, the World Club Championship, as it was known, involved 22 clubs and any number of embarrassing hammerings for British sides.

With the introduction this year of the six-team format, the same thing could happen again, albeit on a much smaller scale, but the fact is that, 1997 apart, Super League clubs have a good record against their Australian counterparts.

St Helens’ defeat by Eastern Suburbs in 1976 is not usually recognised as an official  fixture, so the true birthplace of the World Club Challenge concept is the now demolished Central Park.

That encounter between Wigan and Manly in 1987 has entered the game’s  folklore and Wane has never been allowed to forget his starring role as the official man of the match. “Every time I go shopping on the market, people still want to talk about it – and it’s almost 30 years ago now,” he says. “I want the present players to have a bit of that.”

Saints have their own World Club heritage, having won it and lost it in the past. “Langtree Park was built for nights like this,” says Wilkin. “The atmosphere will be  electrifying.”

Souths will field 11 of the players who won the NRL Grand Final in October, although the dominant figure from the side that beat Canterbury 30-6, Sam Burgess, has now moved on to find out whether he can be as big a  success in rugby union.

His destructive younger twin brothers, Tom and George, will be there, however, along with players of the calibre of Greg Inglis, Issac Luke and the newly signed Brett Stewart.

Most significantly, they are coached by Michael Maguire, a huge success at Wigan before taking the reins at Souths. He and Wane worked together at the DW Stadium and remain close friends.

That was illustrated when the two clubs held a joint training session at Orrell this week, with up to 2,000 spectators paying £3 each to watch them. That illustrated something else; the public appetite for these games in this country, which has remained  constant since 1987.

It is on the back of that enthusiasm that the competition has been able to take the leap to six teams, but Shane Richardson, the Souths chief executive who is joining the NRL next month as its senior strategist, believes it should go further – perhaps to a Champions League-type structure. That, though, would mean the controversial step of cutting down on domestic fixtures.

“We want quality not quantity,” Richardson says. “England still thinks you can play 40 games a season and we’re working to reduce the number of games.”

Despite the expanded format, there is no doubt which is the main event this weekend. Wane admits to “a lot of envy” that it is Saints, not Wigan, who are involved in it. “I’m very jealous,” he says. 

It has also left him in a genuine quandary. Wane comes from a Wigan background where it is commonplace to talk of “hating” St Helens. They are also playing a club coached by one of his best mates. But surely, on this occasion, with three British clubs aiming for overall supremacy, he will have to support Saints.

He does admit that, even if it has to be wrenched out of him. “I can’t quite bring myself to say it,” he says. “Let’s just say that if it’s 3-0 [to the Super League teams] I’ll be delighted.”

First up in trying to achieve that, Warrington, with their new signings, Daryl Clark and Ashton Sims, would be many people’s choice as likeliest British winners, although they have no WCC experience. Brisbane’s squad is light on numbers without the star quality of the past, but Wigan are without their captain, Sean O’Loughlin, who underwent a knee operation this week. John Bateman, who has played as well as anyone in Super League in the opening weeks of the season, will switch to loose forward.

For the big one on Sunday, Saints will be without their scrum-half, Luke Walsh, who is still recovering from a virus.