If a competition best sums up the state of flux rugby league is in at the moment, it is the World Club Series. In many ways it is a microcosm of the sport’s issues at elite level: it is a tournament that promised so much upon its launch in 2015, but is now beginning to struggle.
The tournament’s biggest issue is undoubtedly the noticeable gap between the standard of the Super League and NRL sides who compete in it. Before the third instalment of the competition this weekend, English sides are yet to win a single game, with a record of 0-6 thus far. It is hardly a ringing endorsement for the credibility of the British game or the competitiveness of the tournament.
Increasingly, NRL sides are starting to feel that way too. This year, a lack of interest from those teams means that there are only two games – does that still quantify a series? – compared to the usual three. On Saturday Warrington play Brisbane and Wigan face Cronulla on Sunday. Another NRL whitewash this weekend could prove fatal for the format and mean the series is scrapped in favour of a one-game World Club Challenge. It is a point not lost on those at the heart of it.
“I think it’s fair to say this is a big weekend,” admits the RFL’s rugby director, Kevin Sinfield. “Another strong year for the Australians might see it wane further but there’s always an appetite from Super League. But we know we have to perform well and, dare I say it, win some games.”
But should Brisbane beat Warrington and Cronulla become world champions on Sunday, where next? How do you keep the NRL sides interested when they are clearly so far ahead of Super League? The answer, perhaps in true rugby league fashion, lies in innovation.
“The more we can open the eyes of the Australians to the international club game, the better,” says the Wigan chairman, Ian Lenagan, one of the men originally behind the World Club Series concept. “If that means we have to go to them, then we go to them – or the concept goes somewhere like America.”
On a journey to try and discover what the future of a much-maligned tournament holds, North America has been mentioned more than once. It is embryonic in rugby league terms but next weekend, Toronto Wolfpack will play their first competitive game in the Challenge Cup, and the World Cup is already heading there in 2025.
So is it logical – and more importantly, viable – that the world’s best club sides could face off not in England or Australia, but across the Atlantic in years to come? “Why not Toronto or somewhere in North America in the coming years,” Sinfield asks. “With the 2025 World Cup being in the United States and with Toronto starting there, I think it would be a great thing for us to do. I’m not taking the game away from British fans but if we want it to grow, it’s important we think about where it’s staged to help it develop.”
But before that potentially gargantuan leap, Australia feels a more likely option. Only once has the World Club Challenge been played there in the past 20 years and Wigan attracted a crowd of over 31,000. Then, the NRL’s argument for teams travelling 12,000 miles in pre-season is moot – and there is clear warmth to the idea from some Super League sides.
“We’d do it,” says the Warrington coach, Tony Smith. “It might be another way of doing this and putting on a Super League entertainment package for them if we played a game of Super League while we were there getting ready for that tournament. I think there would be interest too if it was promoted the right way and played in the right cities.”
“It would be unthinkable to have a calendar without at least the one-off World Club Challenge,” Sinfield says. “It’s a must for the international club game because despite not having won any of the first six games of the series, we know our top clubs can mix it with their top teams.”
Alan Partridge once infamously confused evolution and revolution but it is vital that those deciding on the future of the World Club Series don’t do the same. One, or perhaps even two, wins for Super League would change the whole complexion of the tournament in the eyes of many but if Britain comes up short again this weekend, maybe it is time to act now to ensure that another of rugby league’s innovations does not die in its infancy.