World Club Challenge: Wigan Warriors can end Super League's wait for win

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World Club Series: Can Super League's best compete with top NRL sides?
Dacia World Club Series
Warrington Wolves v Brisbane Broncos
Date: Saturday, 18 February Kick-off: 20:00 GMT
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, BBC Radio Merseyside, BBC Radio Manchester and online; live text commentary on the BBC Sport website.
Wigan Warriors v Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks
Date: Sunday, 19 February Kick-off: 15:00 GMT
Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, BBC Radio Manchester and online; live text commentary on the BBC Sport website.

Once upon a time it gave British rugby league glorious bragging rights.

The World Club Challenge would give the best of Super League the chance to beat the reigning NRL champions on an annual basis.

And for a while each year the cocksure Australian pundits would lose a little volume when it came to trashing the Poms and our "inferior game".

Of course, they always spluttered out their excuses: "Mate, it's not fair our teams have to do all the travelling..."; "Aw look, the weather up there gives you a massive advantage..."; "You know, our clubs don't even take it seriously...".

Still, it was nice to get one over on them. When rugby league worlds collide on the Test match stage, British wins are too rare. So when the club game gave us succour, we were all too eager to gloat.

But that annual pleasure has been taken away. The NRL clubs have started winning. They have been overcoming indifference, jet lag and chilblains for some time now.

North Queensland Cowboys
North Queensland Cowboys beat Leeds Rhinos 38-4 in last year's World Club Challenge

Leeds were the last British winners against Manly. But that was in 2012, and it is the only British win in the last eight years.

Wigan tried to reverse the trend by reversing the travel patterns when they flew to Sydney for their World Club Challenge fixture against the Roosters in 2014, but that did not end well. The Roosters won 36-14.

British clubs still lead the head-to-head 22-match series, dating back to Wigan's 8-2 win over Manly in 1987, by 12 wins to 10.

But that statistic underlines how dominant the Super League sides were, compared with the slide in fortunes in the past decade or so.

The truth of it is that in the past three years, it has not even been close.

They have even started adding other teams to the mix to make it a World Club Series weekend - this year Warrington take on Brisbane Broncos on Saturday before Super League champions Wigan face Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks on Sunday. But the Aussies even win the warm-up games, mostly at a canter.

The NRL is getting stronger and stronger. The investment into clubs of millions of dollars on the back of a mega-bucks TV deal has seen their competition become more intense on a weekly basis.

They have even started taking England's best players, with the bulk of the national team playing in the NRL.

In each of the past few years English hopes have been artificially raised, there has been a buzz of anticipation - and then those hopes are cruelly swatted away.

Some Australian player lifts a trophy; some Australian coach tells an after-match news conference it was a good run-out ahead of the really important stuff - the NRL season; and the English rugby league fraternity are left sulking in a corner moaning about salary caps.

So, at the risk of seeing the well of eternal optimism run dry, I reckon this could be Super League's year. And how we, and the world of rugby league, need it to be.

Wigan and Wane to invoke spirit of 1987?

Sean O'Loughlin
Wigan beat Warrington 12-6 in last year's Grand Final

Wigan are a terrific team and are, if anything, an even better side than they were when they won the Grand Final in October.

Their coach Shaun Wane knows exactly what this match means to the Wigan and British public. He was man of the match in that game against Manly back in 1987, when Central Park almost burst because of the number of fans inside.

Cronulla's Grand Final win last year was nothing short of a fairytale, ending a 49-year wait to lift the trophy. "Forever ends" was the catchline when they beat Melbourne in a nerve-shredding game.

But they will be without a clutch of their Grand Final stars, and a wintry Wigan afternoon may be the perfect platform for a Super League side to finally end the drought.

They have also spent time sightseeing in Paris during the build-up, which may suggest an eye off the ball and over-confidence - the last Australian club to take in the French capital before a meeting with a British side was the ill-fated Perth Western Reds, who followed up their trip to the Louvre with defeat by Sheffield Eagles in the extended 1997 World Club tournament.

There are even a few learned Australians who would not mind seeing Cronulla come a cropper.

Not only would a Wigan win be a major shot in the arm for Super League, it would also help revive interest in a game that should be rugby league's international best-seller.

Wigan chairman Ian Lenagan told the BBC earlier this week that he can foresee the World Club Challenge becoming rugby league's equivalent of the Champions League final - a glorious annual event that showcases the international club game at its glamorous best.

He believes the NRL will give serious consideration to how to move the World Club Challenge forward when they start considering next year how to shape the club game from 2019 onwards.

With a World Cup in the United States planned to take place in 2025, and with the growing interest in Canadian side Toronto Wolfpack, North America would make an ideal location to see the best of both hemispheres face off in a brave new world.

Others have suggested various venues in the Middle East and East Asia; from Dubai to Hong Kong. And it is easy to get excited about that prospect.

But the truth is no Australian administrator will go anywhere near that notion if Super League remains sub-standard. A win this weekend for an English side will at least plant a seed of hope.

So Wigan, it is over to you. Even St Helens fans may punch the air - when no-one is looking of course - if the Warriors were to win. Super League could puff out its chest again and claim its best is good enough.

And someone, somewhere may take note of such a result and begin the planning to make the World Club Challenge the showpiece it should be, all things being equal.

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