On October 18, 1997, Brisbane Broncos beat the now defunct Hunter Mariners 36-12 to win the inaugural and only World Club Series to feature all teams from the Super League and NRL. What was billed as the Champions League of rugby and the future of the domestic game turned out to be one of the most expensive disasters in the sports’ history.
Staged in the mid-season and featuring 22 teams, the tournament went on for too long, the Australian sides completely outplayed their English counterparts and attendances dwindled. The travel commitments for players also left organisers with a logistical and costly nightmare as teams played matches across the two continents.
It surprised nobody that the World Club Series did not return as everyone involved in the game made their best efforts to erase the tournament from the history books.
It would take three seasons for the World Club Challenge to take place again, and now 18 years on a World Club Series has once again been staged.
There were plenty of differences from 1997; most notably being only six teams from the two elite competitions took part. The World Club Challenge match was won by NRL premiers South Sydney Rabbitohs who humiliated St Helens 39-0, but unlike in previous seasons two other games took place. Warrington hosted St George Illawarra Dragons on Friday night and suffered a narrow 18-12 defeat and Wigan took Brisbane Broncos to extra time before suffering a golden point loss.
Whilst the results of Friday and Saturday’s matches held little significance, the games had to prove that the idea of once again expanding the World Club Series in whatever form had the legs to run. It did that.
Wigan and Warrington matched their NRL counterparts for the two games and proudly represented the Super League competition. The gap between the two competitions over the years has narrowed and the teams on Friday and Saturday produced some high-quality rugby league to prove it.
St Helens will be disappointed to have been outplayed completely by the Rabbitohs in the weekend’s main game, but this is a South Sydney side that won the NRL Grand Final by 24 points and showed their brilliance on Sunday to prove why they are the best team in the world.
The tournament was also a success in drawing in the crowds, with plenty of fans from across all Super League clubs buying into the competition. The sell-out crowd at Langtree Park didn’t let the scoreline dampen their voices on Sunday. Wigan and Brisbane played in front of 20, 842 supporters and the Halliwell Jones Stadium was near-capacity for the Wolves’ loss to the Dragons.
Crowds bought into seeing some of the biggest teams and best players in the world and there was an intense atmosphere inside the grounds that can only usually be savoured during play-off matches or World Cup fixtures.
However, whilst positive attendances and high-octane action on the field point to success, the lack of enthusiasm for the Series in Australia and New Zealand could jeopardise the longevity of the contest.
The inclusion of the Dragons and the Broncos was a voluntary representation of the NRL from the sides rather than taking part on merit. The Dragons finished 11th in the NRL last season and the Broncos scraped a play-off spot in 8th. Ideally, the aim of the Series was to pit the top three sides from each competition against each other and for many hurt the tournament’s credibility.
Whilst the games were televised down under, the words ‘trial-match’ and ‘friendly’ were thrown around by Australian supporters to describe the matches. For many, the games are seen as a build-up to the start of the new NRL season in a fortnight’s time and even the Rabbitohs being crowned World Champions did little to raise excitement levels back home. The sports channels are also competing with the Cricket World Cup, currently being held in their own back-yard.
So what now for the World Club Series? Leading figures from the two governing bodies as well as owners of the elite clubs will no doubt gather in the coming months to address that question.
British fans certainly bought into the three-game series but ultimately the lack of enthusiasm from down-under could see a return to just the solitary World Club Challenge match. Would staging the tournament in Australia and New Zealand gain more of an appeal or would matches continue to be seen as warm-up games?
And then there’s the underlying factor that the Series is not really a tournament at all. There are no knock-out matches, semi-final and final. Would expanding the contest further gather more support or would it just see the Series repeat the mistakes of 1997?
Despite the hammering St Helens received on Sunday, ultimately the Series enjoyed many successes which suggest it will return next season. Who will take part, where the matches will be staged and what format the tournament will take remain anyone’s guess.