The Armchair Pundit: Where now for the World Club Series?

IF the past weekend’s results are anything to go by, the best chance Super League teams will have in next year’s World Club Series is to play their National Rugby League counterparts at knifey-spoony instead of rugby league.

As pointed out by several sources, the aggregate score across all three of this year’s games stood at 118-28 in favour of the Australians. St Helens, Wigan Warriors and Leeds Rhinos – supposedly the best Super League has to offer – were not just beaten, but soundly humbled.
True, all of the English teams were suffering with injuries to key players – Leeds and St Helens in particular.

But this is part of a trend that started even when it was just champion-versus-champion in the one off World Club Challenge.
Between being resurrected as an annual game in 2000 and 2008, Melbourne Storm and Sydney Roosters were the only NRL clubs to win a game. However, Leeds are the only English club to have won a game since 2009, discounting Melbourne being stripped of the 2010 title as part of their punishment for salary cap breaches.

Nevertheless, the second consecutive year of NRL sides whitewashing their Northern Hemisphere opponents in the three-match series has not stopped talk of further expansion of the concept.

“It has to go ahead,” said Super League general manager Blake Solly, almost with the urgency of a man desperately trying to convince himself as much as anyone else listening.

“The goal for us is to get all 12 Super League clubs and all 16 NRL clubs desperate to play and we’re well on the way to that.”
Anyone who recalls the ambitious but ultimately farcical 1997 World Club Challenge will be wary of expanding the concept further just yet, let alone taking it to America or the Far East as Solly spoke about prior to the matches.

The fact a bond of £170,000 needs to be lodged to guarantee the expenses of the travelling NRL teams is also reported to be putting off the likes of Huddersfield Giants and Castleford Tigers from taking part.

Nevertheless, there is still reason to be positive. Aggregate attendances were up slightly to 52,889 from 51,902 in 2015 and the novelty of Anglo-Australian clashes brought plenty of national media interest for rugby league.
The real challenge, though, is to find a way to get the Super League sides back in a position to compete with the sides from Down Under.

Friday Night Lights: When the Sydney Roosters defence stood around looking at each other as the kick-off from St Helens bounced in-goal and into touch to force a goal-line drop-out from the first play, spectators and television viewers could have been forgiven for thinking this might be the night for the hosts.

Alas, it was not to be. After weathering the storm with some impressive defence in the opening exchanges, Sydney tore into the Saints and ran out 38-12 victors, having been 22-0 in front when the half-time hooter sounded.

St Helens had no answer to the support play and lines of running from the Roosters when the visitors were in possession, while their own attacks seemed predictable and ponderous, along with being characterised by blind panic and aimless kicking on the last tackle.

Luke Walsh was also castigated for kicking on the first tackle in the mistaken assumption that the free play rule used in Super League was still in effect, forgetting the match was being played under the international Laws.

While there is no excuse for professional players not to know the Laws, moments like this underline the ridiculous situation of having different sets of interpretations for the NRL, Super League and international games.

The game needs to be played under one unified set of Laws and interpretations for the sake of its own credibility, if nothing else.

Stat of the week: In their three World Club Challenge/Series matches against Eastern Suburbs/Sydney Roosers, St Helens have been outscored 101-14.

talkSPORT make their bow: Sunday night’s World Club Challenge clash between Leeds Rhinos and North Queensland Cowboys marked

talkSPORT’s first live coverage of a rugby league game since acquiring the rights to broadcast Super League matches.
Mark Wilson was joined by ex-Great Britain and St Helens player Paul Sculthorpe at Headingley, while Andrew McKenna and Martin Offiah handled things from back in the studio.

Much of talkSPORT’s output in the past has been heavily football-focussed, but the launch of their new talkSPORT 2 station next month will give them more opportunity to cover other sports, including rugby league.

Drivetime show presenter Adrian Durham is a big fan of the 13-man code too, so this additional attention for the sport can only be a good thing.

As for the match itself, the first half proved a tense battle and some sterling defence from Leeds to ensure the sides went in deadlocked at 4-4 following the first 40 minutes.

The second half proved one-way traffic though as North Queensland, led by man of the match Jonathan Thurston, stormed to a 38-4 victory in front of an impressive 19,778 crowd.

Wigan Warriors did not fare much better in the previous night’s match either, going down 42-12 to new England coach Wayne Bennett’s Brisbane Broncos.

Much worse for the hosts was the fact hooker Michael McIlorum could be out for up to six months with a broken ankle as Super League’s plague of injuries continues to mount.

Bring back the biff watch: Mitch Garbutt became only the second player to be sent off in World Club Challenge history after planting one on James Tamou, who had slapped Garbutt’s Leeds team-mate Keith Galloway following a tackle.

Marwan Koukash Twitter watch: Never one to miss the chance to have a pop at The RFL, Salford’s most-prolific tweeter fired off another shot in the wake of the Australians winning the first two World Club Series matches in a comfortable manner.

“The RFL should accept some responsibility for tonight and last night’s results,” were the words of the Good Doctor.

Meanwhile, back in Super League…: With all the attention of the wider world focussed on the Anglo-Australian showdowns, it would have been easy to forget the regular domestic action was still going ahead as normal.

Salford Red Devils produced another turn-up for the books as they triumphed 28-20 over fellow early surprise package Widnes Vikings, never looking back from storming into a 22-point lead after half an hour.

In some ways, that flying start was reminiscent of the St Helens game the week before, although this time Widnes did threaten to peg them back before the Red Devils eventually sealed the win.

Salford coach Ian Watson was in defiant mood afterwards – and why not? But their next three games are against Wigan, Warrington Wolves and Castleford Tigers, which will provide a real test of their credentials.

The other game saw Hull Kingston Rovers host Wakefield Trinity Wildcats in a repeat of the Robins’ first Super League game back in 2007.
Hull KR won 14-9 that day, but there was to be no repeat. Instead, Wakefield took a 14-12 victory for their first win of the season.

Head coach Brian Smith played down the significance of the win, yet it will be sweet respite for Wakefield’s players and supporters.

Championship round-up: They did it again! Having beaten title favourites Leigh Centurions on the opening weekend of the season, Batley Bulldogs stunned another of the so-called big boys with a 20-8 triumph at home to Sheffield Eagles after being two points down at half time.
It is Bradford Bulls who lead the way though after storming to a 48-16 victory away to Swinton Lions in the Saturday afternoon game. Even so, Bulls head coach James Lowes felt there were improvements his side could make.

Leigh had the edge over London Broncos with a 24-20 home win, while Oldham picked up their first win of the season as they saw off Dewsbury Rams 38-16 and Halifax downed Whitehaven 20-0.

iPro-Sport Cup round-up: League One is rugby league’s most geographically diverse division and the first round of the cup for lower-division teams is just the same, minus returning French outfit Toulouse Olympique.

Oxford, Cheltenham (Gloucestershire All Golds), London and Newcastle made it through to the second round alongside longer-established clubs York City Knights, Doncaster, Rochdale Hornets and Keighley Cougars.

It was a chance for National Conference League amateurs Wath Brow and Leigh Miners Rangers to impress as well, although they were beaten by Keighley and Newcastle respectively – the former going down just 10-4 at home to the Cougars.

Amateur score of the week: Hull Wyke 56 Cottingham Tigers 6, Hull & District League First Division.
Founded in 1960 as Kingston Communications, Wyke continue to play at their original home ground on Bricknell playing fields.
Cottingham represent a village claiming to be one of the largest in the UK with a population of 17,000.

Comments? Questions? Complaints? Email [email protected] with the subject line ‘The Armchair Pundit’, tweet @gamethatgotaway or leave a comment below.

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