RFL hopes St Helens’ success is catalyst for annual World Club Challenge fixture
St Helens’ dramatic World Club Challenge win over Penrith Panthers on Saturday will spark attempts to restore the fixture to a permanent, annual place on the rugby league calendar.
Saints’ 13-12 triumph, capped by Lewis Dodd’s golden-point drop-goal, marked the first win by an English club in Australia since 1994, as the competition returned after a two-year absence due to the Covid pandemic.
Despite being staged every year from 2000 to 2020, RFL chairman Simon Johnson hopes the success of this year’s event will end the era of “ad hoc” arrangements between the respective Super League and NRL champions.
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— Rugby Football League (@TheRFL) February 20, 2023
“What Saturday has shown is that this is a competitive fixture, and although it is negotiated on an ad hoc basis at the moment, I’d hope this will persuade the NRL to make it a vital part of their pre-season,” Johnson told the PA news agency.
“I think in due course we ought to make this something that is a firm part of the cross-hemisphere calendar, and I think with the work we are currently doing with IMG, there is a real opportunity to do that.
“Everybody expected Penrith to walk it, but the achievement by Saints was just wonderful. It was a real shot in the arm for the game, and a real statement that we have some great athletes, and I think it has made the world sit up and take notice.”
Saints stumped up the hefty bill for their trip to Australia, the first by an English team since 2018, and broadcasters Channel 4 reported impressive early-morning viewing figures that averaged around 226,000.
Their triumph even earned praise from rival quarters, with Wigan head coach Matt Peet – whose club famously sunk the Brisbane Broncos 29 years ago – insisting: “I had a feeling they would do it, and I’m pleased to see them get the win.”
Hull KR’s Australian coach Willie Peters, who played in the NRL with South Sydney and St George, added: “I think it’s outstanding for the game over here.
“We’ve got a really good product here and it’s a top-class game. We just need to keep working on the grassroots and the reserve-grade tier, so that we can keep producing the players that were on show.”
The success by Paul Wellens’ team, who will jet straight into next Sunday’s Super League opener at Castleford, could hardly have been more timely at the start of a season in which IMG will unveil the next phase of its grading criteria.
And Johnson hopes the positive start to the campaign – with big crowds at the likes of Warrington, Hull and Hull KR – will help redress the ongoing narrative of star names like John Bateman, Kai Pearce-Paul and Will Pryce committing their futures abroad.
“We’re at a very exciting time in the development of Super League,” added Johnson.
“On purely financial terms the comparison (with the NRL) doesn’t work in our favour, but I think we’re going in the right direction and I think the proposals IMG will be revealing as we go through the season will give everybody the chance to see the confidence we feel.
“For players looking to make a decision about their future, I think they can see that this is a really good quality, exciting competition, and I think this is where the game is really on the up at the moment.”