MERSEYSIDE, ENGLAND – They said there would be withdrawal symptoms after Slammin’ Sam Burgess. They said the conditions would restrict them. They said the weather would cause them problems. What do they know?! The South Sydney Rabbitohs never got the naysayers memo, as they marched into St Helens for the World Club Challenge and carried on marching – all over the Super League champions – from the 3rd minute.
The newly-minted World Club Challenge set a variety of NRL clubs (Brisbane Broncos, St George Illawarra Dragons and, of course, Bunnies) against the top three of the Super League (Warrington Wolves, Wigan Warriors and St Helens). The results were mildly predictable. The Wolves were unfortunate to lose to the Dragons, the Broncos eked out an extra time, golden point win after a messy game, and the Rabbitohs? Well, the Rabbitohs simply picked up from where they finished in the last ten minutes of last year’s NRL Grand Final, smashing the snot out of their opponents.
St Helens were brave. They never stopped running. But the class from the Rabbitohs was too much. Slick dummy-running moves and quick inventive reactions to the unexpected put the Saints to the sword.
The match was watched, by the way, by the aforementioned Burgess and owner Russell Crowe – who declined being a presenter at this year’s Oscars in favor of watching his team according to a BBC interview.
And the Rabbitohs didn’t disappoint their distinguished guests, opening the scoring in the third minute with a beautiful grubber from Adam Reynolds, which was latched onto by new signing Glenn Stewart. Reynolds was the architect of Souths attack. They looked like champions of the world, forcing turnovers and repeat sets and then pouncing with perfect footwork and offloads. Their third try was the pick of the bunch a host of dummy runners, allowing play-makers Reynolds and a quick-thinking Luke Keary to put centre Bryson Goodwin through a half gap. He then he off-loaded to the ever-menacing Greg Inglis for the simplest of tries.
24-0 at half time, and what had been billed as the “greatest night in St Helens history” was fast becoming a nightmare.
The most impressive element of Souths perfect showing was their savage defence; they hunted in packs to the effect that the video referee was called on three times for St Helens. Each time Saints were close, a Souths defender disrupted the ball – rendering St Helens utterly incapable of getting the ball down over the line.
The loss of Slammin’ Sammy was barely noticed; the added ball playing ability of Glenn Stewart and John Sutton in the pack meant the Bunnies had too many big skillful forwards to go with the incredible go-forward of the remaining Burgess twins (both bigger than older brother Sam). With man/mountain Tim Grant still to come into this South Sydney pack, there is no doubt that they have the strongest chance of repeating the historic feat of last year. They’re likely to take the NRL Grand Final again according to reports by Sport Betting Dime. The balance between guile and power in their pack, along with a settled back line, means that few teams will be able to match the balance of their side.
And what of the Super League, close in two games and trashed in the final one?
St Helens captain Jon Wilkin summed it up perfectly in in his post game interview with Sky Sports, highlighting the higher level of skills, the clinical nature of the game in the NRL and the sheer amount of talent that is constantly coming through the lower ranks into the first grade. English rugby league may throw up one or two great players, and may compete with the Australians and Kiwis on the international stage, but the fact remains that most NRL teams would still hand out a beating to any Super League team and possibly to an England international side. The skill levels do not exist in the Super League and the game is not played by enough people at a young enough age. So, whilst the domestic league may be strong, the international competitions highlight a distinct gap between England and the other two rugby league powers.
Throughout this entire competition South Sydney’s movie star owner, Crowe, has constantly called for a more inclusive competition that brings the top three of both the NRL and Super League together for a series of matches. One has to say that if the Super League wants to be producing the kind of talent that is being churned out en masse in the NRL, these types of inter-competition matches should be a regular fixture in the calendar. Yes there will be claims of burnout and yes, the NRL has a salary cap that is twice the size of the existing one in Super League. But the gap is not so vast at the international level and that is surely the most important part?
An enhanced World Club Challenge, would at least allow English Super League teams the chance to play against the very best and thus improve themselves. Should they happen to beat one or two of the NRL teams, then that breaks the facade of invincibility surrounding the Southern Hemisphere side and benefits the English national side when they compete against the Kangaroos and Kiwis.
And so, South Sydney marches on (to another Grand Final possibly?) and the World Club Challenge may indeed have a future. For the sake of parity the Super League will hope so.
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