21 Apr 2020

Hemmings Way: World Club Challenge

Thanks to everyone who read the piece last week where I named my Ultimate Dream Team – and for all the reaction! As I said Dream Teams are always the subject of debate and in these difficult times, I’m glad to have stirred your thoughts and got your juices flowing. 

I am sure all the suggestions and comments provided great interest and controversy in equal measure. So long as we are still passionate and still thinking about the game – that’s all that matters!

This week let’s turn our attention to the World Club Challenge and some of the great games we have seen over the years and reflect on some memorable matches against our ‘friends’ Down Under.

I’ll never forget the first World Club Challenge, I witnessed, at Wigan in 1987. I was with BBC Radio at the time and watched in awe along with 37,000 others packed in to Central Park to see Wigan beat Manly by 8 points to 2.

A truly memorable night – no tries were scored but David Stephenson’s four penalty goals to just the one from Michael O’Connor won the £20,000 prize pot for Wigan - and Ron Gibbs was famously sent off by referee John Holdsworth. It was a fantastic occasion and was a pleasure to be there.

Two years later came another vivid memory as Widnes turned over Canberra at Old Trafford by a margin of six tries to three to retain the pride of Britain in another epic encounter, and the following year Wigan maintained Britain’s world club superiority as they again turned over Australian opposition – this time it was Penrith Panthers at Anfield.

Something special appeared to be brewing. But then the Brisbane Broncos came across to Wigan the following year and burst our bubble winning at Central Park.

When the two sides met the following year – for the first time in Australia – and Wigan won in front of over 54,000 at the ANZ Stadium I firmly believe that was the birth of the Super League Dream. Officials from News Corporation were there and got excited about a World Vision for the game.

Soon after that Super League was born and in 1997 as part of the global vision a true World Club Championship took place with every Super League team in Australia and Europe competing against each other. It was a bold move but one, to be honest, that set the game here back in its bid to grab the sporting headlines, despite the fact that a million Aussie dollars were up for grabs for the winners.

It was a convoluted format to be frank and the European Super League clubs, generally, were outclassed by their opposition. The semi finals were contested by four Australian clubs – with Brisbane beating Hunter Mariners in a one-sided final in Auckland. It was a disappointing tournament.

Needless to say after the World Club concept took a break after that, returning in 2000 when Melbourne Storm put the cleaners through St Helens winning 44-6. That was a shocker… but I think’s safe to say that in the 20 years since, the British clubs – Saints, Wigan, Bradford and Leeds – have more than held their own.

Finally what about some reflections from the World Challenge?

Well many an Australian coach and player has earned good money out of Super League. Defence has more and more become the by-word: remember the phrase “defence wins games”? and we’ve seen more and more wrestling on the ground creeping into our sport, slowing down the play the ball and negating what I love to see… good old-fashioned attractive rugby league. I think we can thank one or two Australian coaches for that!

If I’m, honest a lot of the flair seems to have been coached out of our players as possession and defence have become the all-important keywords. There have been the exceptions that prove the rule of course – St Helens in 2006 – under Aussie Daniel Anderson were magnificent, Leeds and Castleford under Britons Brian McDermott and Daryl Powell have been outstanding.

Let’s be honest we love nothing better than seeing the Aussies getting sent home with tails well and truly between their legs – it’s not happened for the last three years of course. But in 2021… or whenever teams can fly around the world again to take part… let’s all keep our fingers crossed that its our champions that will prevail.

Keep well and safe everyone and take care.