Friday, 11 December 2015

World Club Challenge - Thanks, But No Thanks

I'm a season ticket holder at Saints. As it's winter, I'm starting to have withdrawal symptoms owing to the lack of rugby league at this time of the year. Football and the NFL get you so far, but there is nothing really like the rugby league season. Langtree Park may be the coldest place in western Europe and the quality of rugby on show is not always the highest, but there's no room for this kind of reasoning once you are hooked. I have to wait eight more weeks for anything resembling a competitive rugby league match, and I have just received the following email;



Saints will face Sydney Roosters at Langtree Park on Friday February 19th (KO 8:00pm) as part of the prestigious World Club Series.

It is a rematch of the first ever World Club Challenge game which saw the then Eastern Suburbs face St Helens in 1976.

The 2016 Roosters will come to the town having won the Minor Premiership for the last three seasons - and are packed with a host of NRL stars such as Shaun Kenny-Dowell, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Mitchell Pearce.

Saints will no doubt be blooding new signings Lama Tasi, Dominique Peyroux, Theo Fages and Jack Owens too.

It will be a real Super League v NRL test!

Demand for this fixture is expected to be high and 2016 Members can now exclusively reserve their ‘spec'.

Tickets are priced at:

Hattons Solicitors West Terrace, East Terrace and Family Stands:

Adult - £22.50
OAP and Young Adult - £15.50
Junior - £10

Solarking South and Totally Wicked North Stands:

Adult - £30
OAP and Young Adult - £22.50
Junior - £12

Adult - £28
OAP and Young Adult - £20.50
Junior - £12

Adult - £25
OAP and Young Adult - £18.50
Junior - £10

Tickets can be bought by 2016 Members only by calling into the Ticket Office at Langtree Park or by calling 01744 455 052.

A package for all three games (Leeds v North Queensland, Wigan v Brisbane) costs £60 and can be purchased by visiting or calling the Rugby League Ticket Hotline on 0844 856 1113.

Here's the thing. I'm not going. I have 24 hours to change my mind, but as things stand I am absolutely not going to the Saints v Roosters game. As I will be in Hull tomorrow for a family do there is little chance of me finding time to book my ticket even if I wanted to. Which I don't, and I'll tell you why.

This game is meaningless and my club, in trying to sell me a ticket for it for £30, is trying to take the piss out of me. Did you note the phrase 'prestigious World Club Series' in the email above? How exactly is it prestigious? In rugby league the teams that win the European Super League and the Australasian NRL meet every year in the World Club Challenge. The title of World Club champions is bestowed upon the winners of this game. Saints played in it last year and were roundly whipped 39-0 by the then NRL champions South Sydney Rabbitohs. That was prestigious, even if it did only serve to prove that there is a gargantuan gap in quality between the NRL and Super League at the moment. This will continue to be the case so long as the NRL salary cap is around 10 times higher than that of Super League. Several of the current England national team play their club rugby in the NRL for this very reason. All of which dilutes the quality of Super League but arguably increases the unpredictability of it. The previously cash-rich clubs can no longer just out-bid their smaller foes for the best players and so there is a more even spread of what quality there is in Super League in terms of playing talent.

Despite this obvious and still expanding chasm between the two leagues, the decision makers have seen fit to expand the World Club challenge to include the top three sides from each. Well....sort of. As before, only the two champion sides actually have anything to play for in terms of the title of World Club champions. The rest of us are expected to swallow the idea that our games matter as part of a series between the two competitions. The idea that I would support Leeds or Wigan (this year's other two representatives in the World Club series from Super League) against their NRL opposition is absurd. I hope that the North Queensland Cowboys and Brisbane Broncos run up cricket scores against those two. I wouldn't want Wigan to win a tombola and I don't much care for Leeds either. They won all three trophies on offer in Super League last season and it was unpleasant viewing for the rest of us. Why would I want to sit and watch them pick up yet more silverware on a cold night in February? The only reason I will watch these games on television is in anticipation of them taking a fearful, humiliating battering.

The other problem I have with this whole shebang is the lack of a credible qualification process. Saints did not qualify for this event and have no business being part of it. We finished fourth in Super League last season, were knocked out of the play-offs in the semi-finals and went out of the Challenge Cup at the same stage. Originally the idea was for the league winners, Grand Final winners and Challenge Cup winners to be the three Super League representatives but with Leeds scooping all three they've had to have a re-thing. Hence the presence of beaten Grand Finalists Wigan. Logic suggests that as Wigan finished second in the league the final place would go to either the third placed team or the beaten finalists in the Challenge Cup, Hull KR. But Hull KR managed to lose the Challenge Cup final to Leeds by a mortifying, arse-clenchingly embarrassing scoreline of 50-0. They were too much of a risk, so out they went. Third placed Huddersfield Giants didn't get the gig either. It has been suggested that it was offered to them and they declined, but that would seem to make little sense given that there is no fee involved for them to participate, only television revenue. Huddersfield, despite their qualities, only manage to attract an average crowd of around 5-6000 fans in Super League, and I don't think I enter controversial territory if I suggest that this may have been a prominent factor in their absence from the line-up.

I understand the need to have international club competitions like this, and applaud the attempt to expand the game in this way. But in many ways the fact that the game needs this kind of exposure to enable it to rival the Omni-present evil that is rugby union makes the way they have gone about it even more of a crime. Are we really 'showcasing' our sport by offering up a non-tournament with little competitive integrity? I've been offered the argument that we must start here if we are to expand the concept in the future but I'm not having that theory across my welcome mat, let alone in my house. Start as you mean to go on. Be bold. If you are going to have a genuine six-team World Club competition then the least you can do is ensure that every team involved in it has the opportunity to win it, and that they have qualified for it on merit and not just because they are top three in terms of fans through the turnstiles. Fifty thousand people turn up to watch Newcastle every other week, but they won't be plonked into the Champions League at the expense of the rather more modestly supported Leicester City if the foxes can somehow continue their surprising early season form in the Premier League.

So after tomorrow someone else will have the privilege of snapping up my regular seat in the North Stand for the Roosters game, provided they are willing to part with their £30 for a glorified friendly. As long as my nerve holds......

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