World Club Series: Can injury-ravaged Leeds stop Thurston's Cowboys?

Matt Scott and Johnathan Thurston with the NRL Premiership trophy and Rob Burrow looking forlorn for Leeds
North Queensland won their maiden NRL premiership in 2015, while Leeds' Super League title defence has got off to a poor start

Injury-ravaged, bottom of Super League and without a win in 2016 - Leeds Rhinos face an enormous World Club Challenge task against a North Queensland Cowboys side led by a modern-day rugby league great.

Australia international Johnathan Thurston, a man seemingly destined to take his place among the Immortals Down Under, is looking to bring the world's biggest club prize back with him to the far-flung rugby league-mad north of his homeland, where the Great Barrier Reef meets World Heritage rainforest.

The Cowboys, founded 21 years ago, are taking on Super League's best for the first time, while Leeds have won the trophy three times in the past 11 years.

BBC Sport takes a look at the "aura" of Thurston that drives the Cowboys on, the crisis facing reigning Super League champions Leeds and the other stories from the 2016 World Club Series - starting with St Helens against Sydney Roosters on Friday before new England coach Wayne Bennett leads Brisbane Broncos against Wigan Warriors on Saturday.

What is the World Club Series?

The annual World Club Challenge, which pits the champions of England and Australia against each other in a one-off contest, was expanded to become the World Club Series in 2015.

Three Super League clubs take on three teams from Australia's National Rugby League, with the World Club Challenge match providing the climax to the three-day event.

NRL sides won all three matches last year.

Last piece of the jigsaw

Johnathan Thurston
Johnathan Thurston has enjoyed huge success at club, state and international level

Thurston has almost every major honour available in the rugby league world, at domestic and international level. Every honour but the World Club Challenge, that is.

Fifteen seasons after making his first-grade debut for Canterbury Bulldogs, he can finally achieve that aim when he leads North Queensland Cowboys into the cross-hemisphere contest.

"It'd be huge and would mean plenty to me," Thurston told BBC Sport.

"It's been such a privilege to play at this level for as long as I have, and although you never earmark 'x' number of premierships, or Origins, or World Cups, you always want to win every competition you're involved in.

"So, to win this World Club Challenge match against Leeds would be fantastic, not so much to 'win a set' but to be able to say we, as a team, were successful in an event in which we competed in for the first time.

"I think the fact we have the same team competing in England that won the NRL premiership last year is very significant and would make any success we had over here that much more special."

Johnathan Thurston with the 2015 Dally M medal
Johnathan Thurston has won an unprecedented four Dally M Player of the Year awards

Last season's NRL premiership win capped a remarkable year for the 32-year-old, with team success matched by a Clive Churchill Medal man-of-the-match display, and a Dally M Player of the Year award.

He missed out on the recent Indigenous All-Stars squad in order to stay fit for Sunday's game, but is aware of the responsibility his status as a sportsman brings.

"I'm very proud of my heritage and culture," he added. "I'm in a privileged position, I really enjoy the work I do in the community. I need to make the most of it, I'm not the only one."

Rhinos numbers dwindle

Leeds' record in the competition is an impressive one, collecting the world's top club prize three times with victories against Canterbury Bulldogs, Melbourne Storm and most recently against Manly Sea Eagles in 2012.

But never before has a side preparing for the international fixture faced the sort of crisis that Leeds are grappling with.

Seven first-team players are sidelined, including captain Danny McGuire, talismanic winger Tom Briscoe and recent signing Beau Falloon. Those losses have made their disastrous start to their title defence - losing both league games and conceding 68 points in the process - all the more distressing.

Even before the season started, last season's treble winners were in all sorts of bother, with their training ground subjected to an estimated £1m of flood damage in December.

Rhinos forward Brett Ferres, preparing for just his third game for Leeds since joining from Huddersfield, admits he has never been part of a side that has been confronted by such hardship so early in the season.

Danny McGuire with man-of-the-match trophy after the 2015 Super League Grand Final
Leeds captain Danny McGuire, the man of the match in last season's Grand Final, is Super League's all-time leading try scorer

"We've lost a few leaders in the past and now it is time for the boys to stand up," Ferres told BBC Radio Leeds.

"Obviously me coming into a fresh environment, I'm a senior player and I want to take the responsibility on. I look forward to the challenge."

Despite the setbacks, the England international says it is hard not to get caught up in the thrill of playing in the World Club Challenge.

"It's exciting times for us, going into a different competition and getting away from Super League as it has been a tough start for us," he said.

"We can't get nervous. We need to go out and enjoy it. In the warm up, suck it up, take in the atmosphere, take it all in then forget about it. After that, it's just another game to play in.

"It's a big experience. These moments don't come around often."

Potential partners go head-to-head

Wayne Bennett, newly appointed England boss and Australian rugby league's most decorated coach, takes his Brisbane Broncos to the DW Stadium on Saturday to face a Wigan Warriors side coached by Shaun Wane, the man he may very well appoint as his national team assistant.

The match comes as a tantalising rematch after Brisbane overcame their English opponents in golden-point extra-time 12 months ago.

Wigan's Dan Sarginson and Brisbane's Joe Ofahengaue tussle in 2015
Brisbane Broncos prevailed by two points in a tense World Club Series trip to Wigan in 2015

Wigan captain Sean O'Loughlin said: "There were a lot of disappointed lads after that, so to get another crack at Brisbane this year gives us a good chance to put that behind us with a win.

"Intensity wise, there is a massive step up in these games. We are not in the World Club Challenge game, but to get a crack at a top Australian side is still a huge deal.

"It's a game that has a cup mentality and final mentality to it."

Wigan, who lost the 2014 World Club Challenge to Sydney Roosters, are the only Super League side in this year's series with a perfect record going into the cross-competition fixture.

"We have been involved in two real tough games, not so much big-scoring or free-flowing games, but real grinding and tough intensity games," O'Loughlin added. "We expect this weekend's game to be like that, so it has been good preparation going into it."

'We're not in Bondi Junction any more'

A cold, raining night on Merseyside will be alien to Sydney Roosters captain Jake Friend, but the hooker expects the St Helens faithful to turn the heat up at Langtree Park on Friday.

"I've heard the songs and war cries and it is something I'm looking forward to - hopefully it will be an awesome atmosphere," the 26-year-old told BBC Radio Merseyside.

The Roosters, who won the World Club Challenge for a third time in 2014, will face a Saints side that suffered a thumping defeat by Salford Red Devils - a club one of its own players admitted had been a "laughing stock" last season - in their previous outing.

"I'm sure they will be out to prove a point," said Friend, who helped Sydney top the NRL table as minor premiers last year.

"I know they are capable of throwing anything at us at any time. Defensively we will need to try to limit them."

Jake Friend training in Warrington
Jake Friend admits temperatures and atmosphere at Langtree Park will be a new experience for him

Saints lost last year's World Club Challenge game to South Sydney Rabbitohs by a record score, and are out to prove that Super League can match their more illustrious and better-financed southern hemisphere rivals.

"Super League versus the NRL is a big thing isn't it?" said St Helens captain Jon Wilkin. "We need to show our competition still has got merits and show young guys they should want to stay and play in our competition."

Compiled by BBC Sport's Andrew Aloia and Matt Newsum.

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