Yet again it has become apparent that the RFL have a distinct inability to learn from their mistakes. Previous reinventions including numerous liquidated new clubs, bizarre playoff systems and the disastrous magic weekend have plagued the sport since the creation of Super League. So now the RFL have decided it’s time to reintroduce the biggest flop of all: the expanded world club challenge.
The ill fated 1997 world club championship saw 22 sides from Australia and the European Super League battle it out and frankly it was a disaster. It was a financial catastrophe which saw the tournament lose $5,000,000, which wasn’t helped by poor television ratings and dismal crowds. The rugby didn’t go to plan either as throughout the tournament, only eight matches were won by the Europeans and none of them made it past the quarter-finals. After the Europeans proved they didn’t deserve to be on the same field as the Australians, it was abandoned after its inaugural year.
However this was 15 years ago, Super League has dramatically improved since then and as proven by Leeds’ fantastic victory over Manly and Warrington’s pre-season victory over the Rabbitohs, many believe we could now compete. The talk of a new tournament has caused quite a stir, but thankfully every suggestion made so far has only called for a small tournament involving only the best. If Leeds and Warrington are good enough to compete with the NRL’s finest then you would expect that certainly Saints and Wigan have the ability to compete, with Huddersfield and Catalans also rapidly developing, meaning the idea certainly has some potential.
However, it’s not quite as simple as the afore mentioned victors being better than their Australian counterparts. Warrington’s victory came in a meaningless pre-season friendly and not even the most devout Leeds fan would claim that Leeds are genuinely the best club in the world. After a full pre-season and two league matches it is fair to say the Rhinos were in much better shape than the jet-lagged Australians, yet to play a proper match and whose only experience of the cold being Joe Galuvao’s acclimatisation to British weather by sitting in his fridge. No matter how good Manly should have been, they weren’t. Yet with the different timings of the domestic leagues the only way both sides would be able to go into the game with equal footing would be to follow Brian McDermott’s suggestion of a post-season tournament.
Yet this causes problems in itself as there simply isn’t enough time to host the four nations alongside a fully fledged club competition. What’s more, it would hardly go down well with the clubs who regularly complain of there being too many matches in a season as it is. What’s more the Australians have never exactly embraced the competition anyway. That said, the fact they seem more committed to an expanded world club tournament than this year’s abandoned Four Nations, given their supremacy, suggests maybe it is time for the four nations to make way for an international club competition.
In the highly unlikely event of this happening, the next question would be the structure of the competition. The ideas so far would see either six or eight teams compete with most suggestions including four teams from each country in either two groups of four followed by a knockout. However the most obvious format is yet to be suggested – a straight knockout tournament, which has always been the most attractive to fans, given the continual popularity of the Challenge Cup. It also reduces the number of games which have to be played and doesn’t put people off by overcomplicating the format, as Gary Hetherington’s suggestion of a six team competition would. His idea of teams playing three matches in one weekend is what struck as particularly ridiculous as come the Sunday teams would be far from their best.
However, the Leeds CEO’s suggestion of a weekend long event reminded me of rugby union’s world sevens series which could easily be reproduced in the nines format. For those unfamiliar with the concept, the sevens tournaments see four pools of four teams with pool matches played on a Saturday and finals on a Sunday. The nines format is quickly growing in popularity and with guaranteed quality; this appears an attractive possibility for all those involved in the sport. What’s more the logistical issues of the other suggestions are wiped out, as it only takes one weekend, includes numerous teams yet doesn’t leave players too exposed to fatigue and injury meaning the only issue remaining would be the venue.
Talks of Dubai or Las Vegas sound incredible, but the tournament has to settle in rugby league strongholds first. While the sport is bigger down under, this competition has always had more support in Britain; therefore I would play the first tournament here, (but for the love of god, somewhere in rugby league heartlands, not down south). Although respect is due to the 200 Manly fans who made the trip last week, 200 fans from each club involved is not enough to fill an international standard stadium, therefore foreign venues hardly seem feasible options. Nevertheless there certainly seems to be a place in the rugby league calendar for an expanded world club challenge, and organised properly, it could be the making of global rugby league.