Leeds Rhinos take on the Manly Sea Eagles for the World Club Challenge title at Headingley on Friday night. It’s a chance for one side to become the ‘undisputed’ best club team in the world, but more importantly, a chance for the Rhinos to show that Super League is up to the NRL’s standards. For others, it’s just a great opportunity to get one over on Australia, especially after the defeat in the Tri-Nations final. The whole of England are behind the Rhinos, and the Rhinos themselves are desperate to claim victory, but how much does it mean to Manly?
The validity of this competition is the question raised every time it comes around. Does it really mean more to the English than the Australians? There is no doubt some NRL sides have come over in the past without a care in the world, indeed there was a run of five straight victories for English teams between 2004 and 2008. The World Challenge was little more than a pre-season warm up for the Aussie sides, who rested top players and sent over either rising young stars, or reserve graders. Take the Rhinos victory over the Canterbury Bulldogs in 2005, their first appearance in this competition. The Bulldogs spent the whole week before the game telling anyone who would listen this was little more than a training run, something that showed through in their squad selection. Missing seven of their grand final winning side, they arrived with little more than a week to prepare and coach Steve Folkes even turned up to the pre-match press conference sporting a colourful Hawaiian shirt! Leeds picked up the trophy after a 39-32 victory, but the result only told half the story as the Rhinos led 38-12 after 55 minutes before the Bulldogs realised Aussie pride was at stake. Similar things happened in the following years; indeed Bradford destroyed the West Tigers the year after 30-10 to raise serious doubts about the competition’s future.
The Australian teams have fought back in recent years, picking up the trophy on the last three occasions, a trend that started with a Manly victory over Leeds in fact. It seems the shame of losing to English clubs has jolted them into action and they have at least started to take the match a little more seriously. This has been reflected in Manly’s squad selection for Friday night, only four changes have been made to the squad since their Grand Final win over the New Zealand Warriors in October. Of those four changes, Michael Robertson and Shane Rodney have moved to England to join the London Broncos, co-captain Jason King replaces Joe Galuvao and Michael Oldfield take the place of Will Hopoate. The big guns are all there though, and the selection of Lyon, Watmough, Matai and giant forward Tony Williams suggests that Manly aren’t just here for a holiday. The rest of the side contains a lot of international and State of Origin experience and on paper, you’d have to say the Sea Eagles have the stronger squad by some distance.
It’s also a chance for Manly to prove a point to Des Hasler. The former coach agreed to join the Canterbury Bulldogs after leading Manly to the title, but signed a contract to start in 2013. This didn’t go down well with the Manly board of directors, who sacked the coach, stating a ‘serious breach of contract.’ The new man in charge, Geoff Toovey, will be eager to claim a trophy in his first game in charge to prove he is ready to make the step up to Head Coach. The media pressure has been immense since Hasler’s departure so Manly will be keen to finally let their on-field actions do some of the talking.
Although there seems to be some purpose to this year’s clash, there is no doubt that this face-off between the world’s best needs spicing up somewhat. Every single match has been hosted in England since 1994, a fact that has no doubt contributed to the lack of interest the game generates in Australia. Not since the ill-fated 1997 22 team World Club Championship has an English team competed down under and therefore to keep the tradition of this fixture running, this needs to be reversed. Rugby League is an innovative sport; indeed recently we’ve had the franchise system and Millennium Magic weekend to debate at length. Whether or not you believe in some of the sport’s initiatives, the RFL undeniably tries it’s hardest to create further interest in the game. It’s therefore baffling as to why the World Club Challenge hasn’t been changed; a clash between the two best club sides in the world could raise the game’s profile even further if promoted properly. The Rhinos’ Chief Executive Gary Hetherington spoke of his desire to take the game to Australia this year, but nothing ever came of it. At the moment, the match is just an obstacle to the regular season, an inconvenience for the travelling team and a distraction for the host, see Leeds’s defeat to Wigan last week for proof of this. The date of the match needs moving, it needs expanding to include the top two sides from each league playing off and the venue needs to switch countries on alternate years.
Hopefully, these measures could be implicated for 2013 to create a bigger spark for the game next year. For now though, we’ll just head to Headingley on Friday hoping the Rhinos can send the Aussies home with their tails between their legs.