The year is 1997 and rugby league is split: Super League on one side, the ARL on the other. One of the biggest embarrassments was the Super League World Club Challenge.
Traditionally held between the winner of the NSWRL/ARL and the English competition, it previously took place in October during the Northern Hemisphere winter. That meant the Australian premiers were still celebrating the grand final win and treated the WCC as a post-season junket.
With the UK Super League moving to coincide with the Australian Super League, some bright sparks decided to hold a massive tournament. Ceasing both competitions for seven weeks, there were six rounds and a playoff, with the finals in October.
Ambitious in theory, it was a huge flop which highlighted the gap between Australia and the UK. While the two Australian pools and Europe Pool A played six games, Europe Pool B (Paris Saint-Germain, Leeds, Oldham, Salford City, Sheffield and Castleford) played just four.
The qualification format was even more ludicrous; four Australian and four UK teams qualified for the finals.
Five of the ten Australian teams (Brisbane, Auckland, Cronulla, Penrith and Hunter) were undefeated in the pool games, with Penrith missing on out differential. Canberra and North Queensland lost one game, while Canterbury, Adelaide and Perth lost two games. By contrast, the UK quarter finalists were Wigan (2-4), London (1-6), Bradford (0-6) and Paris Saint-Germain (1-3). It’s ridiculous that teams can a) miss out on finals despite being undefeated and b) teams can advance despite not winning.
The majority of games were lop-sided with matches split between Australia and Europe, the carnage usually caused by Australian teams. The UK teams only won five games against Australasian teams (Wigan defeated Canterbury [twice], Sheffield defeated Perth, Paris-Saint Germain defeated Perth, London defeated Canberra).
So, after all that, we had eight quarter finalists: Auckland, Hunter, Brisbane, Cronulla for Australia and Bradford, Wigan, St Helens (who had beaten PSG in a playoff to qualify) and London. Held in October in Australia, New Zealand and England, Auckland, Brisbane and Cronulla won comfortably, while Hunter beat Wigan by four points in England.
After winning the Super League premiership, Brisbane beat Auckland 22-16 to advance to the final. Hunter upset Cronulla at Shark Park 22-18 to qualify.
So onto the final, five months after the opening game. Held at the “neutral” Erricsson Stadium in Auckland, Brisbane continued their Super League domination with a 36-12 win over Hunter infront of just 12,000. Brisbane secured the win by halftime, leading 26-4. It was Hunter’s last game, discarded – along with Perth – for the1998 NRL competition. The new team, Melbourne Storm, absorbed some of the Mariners’ best.
So what can be learnt from this disaster? While the idea was ambitious, the UK teams didn’t have the strength to compete. The bizarre finals qualification was meant to provide an even spread of teams, it punished Australia and rewarded the UK.
There was one silver lining; the UK continued with Super League and the competition has gradually strengthened. Australian players move to Super League (usually after finishing their NRL careers) and prosper. Moving the game to the European summer means it doesn’t compete with the monolithic EPL.
The World Club Challenge has resumed its one-off status, with games played in February in the UK (though the 2014 match between the Sydney Roosters and Wigan was played in Sydney).
The format was expanded in 2015, with an extra two games. This seems like the best format. Rather than being a stand-alone match with little meaning, it should be used to promote the rivalry between the Australian and UK club teams. It could be expanded with the top four teams from both comps playing in a small tournament, with quality ruling over 1997’s bloated quantity.