Future Of World Club Challenge Hangs In The Balance

2013 World Club Challenge - Leeds Rhinos v Melbourne StormBy STEVE MASCORD

IT’S quite possible that Gary Hetherington beat the Melbourne Storm to Australia at the weekend.

While the ultra-professional Storm shipped off home after their solid and entertaining 18-14 win over Leeds on Friday, the Rhinos chief executive also headed to the airport for the 24-hour flight.

Melbourne’s mission is to defend their premiership. Hetherington’s is to breathe new life into the World Club Challenge concept.

Friday night’s contest, in front of a sold-out 20,400 crowd, was the 13th in a row to be played in England. The 1997 22-team WCC was such an embarrassment that the fixture was put on ice until 2000, when the Storm played St Helens.

Since then, it’s been in holding pattern. You could convincingly argue it has in fact regressed, moving from large soccer stadia like Elland Road and the Reebok at Bolton back to the home grounds of the Super League clubs involved.

Aside from badges and bootlegged scarves being sold on street corners, there’s been no real WCC merchandise produced for years. Planning has taken place on a year to year basis between the teams involved and St George Illawarra negotiated so many guarantees in 2011 that the prizemoney became an RFL secret because it was so small.

This year’s match sponsor, PRObiz, signed on just two days before the match!

Hetherington’s journey to meet NRL club bosses could well determine whether the WCC realises its potential or withers and dies.

Before leaving England, Hetherington said: “I think the time is right to look to expand the concept. Rugby league needs to embrace the demand for global, international sporting events and this offers an ideal opportunity.

“We have seen in recent years the success that the American NFL and NBA have enjoyed by bringing fixtures to London and a concept such as this, further down the road, could prove very attractive to a number of cities around the globe, which will obviously improve the global reach of our game.”

While the working group including South Sydney’s Shane Richardson and St George Illawarra’s Peter Doust has agreed to move the game to Australia and include six teams in the UK in 2015, the decision is yet to be ratified by the NRL.

When Warrington majority shareholder Simon Moran last week wrote to a host of clubs asking if they supported the six-team concept, they didn’t answer.

That’s because they wanted to get the opinion of all clubs before responding. As you’ll read on page ??, even the Storm have doubts over the viability of pitting third versus third and second versus second on a Friday and Saturday in February 2014.

The Australian clubs also want the profits shared equally between all franchises in both competitions, not between the competing teams.

In England, SKY claims to already own the rights to the WCC. So selling the rights in Australia – perhaps meaning some rather unusual kick-off times in 2015 – to generate new income appears to be the key.

According to victorious Storm coach Craig Bellamy, ”It’s well known that some clubs don’t take this seriously”.

But the obsessive mentor and his staff were determined that would not be an issue for their travelling party, which arrived 10 days before the Leeds game and was denied a lead-up game against London by politics.

“To these guys’ credit … this is the third time I’ve been over with this group and this is probably the best preparation we’ve had,” said Bellamy.

“They just had a really good attitude to training, they had a really good attitude to doing the little things they need to do away from training. We went out last Friday night and had a few beers but aside from that the boys haven’t drunk at all.

“They’ve been tremendous with their attitude.”

On-field, the story of the night was 21-year-old back rower Tohu Harris. The debutant was presented with his jersey by father Paul and scored the try of the match just after halftime – the one that put Melbourne ahead 18-8.

“He lasted a lot longer than we thought,” said Bellamy. “We thought we might have to replace him in the first half but he got out 65 minutes. It was 65 good minutes. He worked really hard and came up with a couple of really nice touches and defended pretty well.”

Fullback Billy Slater also impressed in his first full game after a pre-season ankle injury.

Bellamy is close to finalising his team for the March 10 clash with St George Illawarra. Brett Finch missed the cut on Friday but remains in contention, while Bellamy was unhappy with a couple of errors from winger Sisa Waqa.

“Kevin Proctor, he won’t be available for a couple of months,” he said. “Matt Duffie, he might be available again.

“I’d imagine the 17 will come out of the 18 or 19 that were named for (this game).”

According to try-scoring prop Jesse Bromwich, a holiday approach just wasn’t an option for the players.

“I don’t think Craig takes it easy,’ said the Kiwi, “so why should we?”

Filed for: RUGBY LEAGUE WEEK

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