2018 World Club Challenge preview

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    The 2018 rugby league season begins in earnest this weekend when the Melbourne Storm host the Leeds Rhinos in the annual World Club Challenge at AAMI Park.

    Traditionally held in England in the early part of the Super League competition, this year’s edition will be played in Australia for just the fourth time ever, first since 2014 and first ever in Melbourne.

    The format also reverts to just the one singular match after the past three editions featured three matches, two of which were exhibition matches between selected NRL and Super League clubs, and the other of which pitted the premiers of those respective competitions in the showpiece match.

    It will be the fourth time the Storm and Rhinos have met in the World Club Challenge, with the Rhinos winning in 2008 and the Storm saluting in 2010 and 2013, though the Storm had the 2010 title stripped from them due to salary cap breaches.

    For Craig Bellamy’s men, this will be their fifth World Club Challenge match, and will be looking to add to the legitimate titles they won in 2000 and 2013, each of which followed premiership wins in the preceding year.

    They produced a consistent 2017 season, topping the ladder for the third time by winning 20 of their matches, as well as having the best attack, defence and points differential of any club.

    The Storm went on to win their third legitimate premiership by thrashing the North Queensland Cowboys, which were missing both their co-captains in Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott, by 34-6 in the grand final, with Billy Slater winning his second Clive Churchill Medal for being best-on-ground.

    Melbourne Storm NRL Rugby League Grand Final 2017

    (AAP Image/David Moir)

    Veterans Slater, Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk (now at the Sydney Roosters) proved that age is only a number, while Cameron Munster continued to impress despite concerns over his off-field attitude which has come to light in recent weeks.

    At the age of 34, Smith produced what can only be described as one of the greatest individual seasons in recent rugby league history, achieving the trifecta of leading his state, club and country to glory in the State of Origin, NRL and the World Cup respectively.

    He also became the most-capped player in NRL history, playing his record-breaking 356th game in the qualifying final against the Parramatta Eels last September, and won the Dally M Medal and Golden Boot Award each for a second time.

    The Queenslander now only needs to lead his side to victory in the World Club Challenge to complete the extremely rare quadfecta of winning Origin, the NRL premiership, World Cup and World Club Challenge, all as captain, simultaneously.

    It would be rugby league’s equivalent of completing the Grand Slam, if he can achieve it.

    Winning the World Club Challenge is something that eluded Smith’s former state and national teammate Darren Lockyer, whose Brisbane Broncos side he led to the 2006 NRL premiership (in which it defeated Smith’s Storm side by 15-8 in the grand final) fell to St Helens in the 2007 edition.

    After missing most of the previous two seasons due to a serious shoulder injury which twice required surgery, Billy Slater returned to top form, reclaiming his place in the Maroons’ Origin side and claiming the Clive Churchill Medal in the grand final, his 299th NRL match.

    Billy Slater Melbourne Storm NRL Rugby League Grand Final 2017

    (Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

    Despite fears that he would retire at the end of last season, the Nambour native has committed to playing on for a 16th season, and barring injury, is due to bring up his milestone 300th NRL match in Round 1 against the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs at the newly-built Perth Stadium.

    The 2018 NRL season looms as, potentially, the last season of rugby league by either (or both) Slater or Smith, with both turning 35 on the same day in June.

    It would also mark a slow changing of the guard, with Cooper Cronk having moved to Sydney to not only be closer to his partner, Tara Rushton, but also extend his NRL career at the Roosters.

    His move to Bondi has drawn the ire of many NRL fans, with some questioning how the glamour club could possibly fit him under their salary cap, the Chooks having already signed other big-name stars such as James Tedesco and Angus Crichton.

    The Roosters have even hired respected salary cap auditor Ian Schubert to make sure that they are indeed operating legally; it has been reported that they are under the cap by $750,000.

    Ironically, Schubert was the man who blew the whistle on the Melbourne Storm’s salary cap scandal which saw them stripped of two premierships, three minor premierships, fined $500,000 and condemned to win the wooden spoon in 2010.

    Cooper Cronk

    (Photo by Quinn Rooney/Getty Images)

    Back on topic now, and we now swing our focus to Leeds who won a record-breaking eighth Super League crown by thrashing Castleford by 24-6 in last October’s grand final.

    Captain Danny McGuire, playing his last game for the Rhinos before crossing to Leeds for the ongoing Super League season, won the Harry Sunderland Trophy after scoring two tries and kicking two field goals in the win.

    He is the only man to feature in each of the Rhinos’ eight Super League premiership wins, while he has featured in three World Club Challenge wins, one of which was achieved by defeating the Melbourne Storm in 2008.

    The Leeds side that is travelling to Melbourne could field up to four former NRL players for Friday night’s match, with Joel Moon, Matt Parcell, Mitch Garbutt and Adam Cuthbertson having played in the NRL at various stages during their careers.

    Of the quartet, Cuthbertson will be seeking his second World Club Challenge win after featuring in the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles side which saluted in 2009 (though he did not play in the club’s 2008 premiership win, in which they thrashed the Storm by 40-0 in the grand final).

    With no Auckland Nines tournament taking place this year, Friday night’s World Club Challenge in Melbourne officially marks the start of the Australian rugby league season for 2018, though the NRL season is still only three weeks away from starting.

    On their home soil, the Melbourne Storm will be hoping to claim their third World Club Challenge title and get their premiership defence up and running in earnest before they travel to Perth for the aforementioned Round 1 clash with the Bulldogs.

    The World Club Challenge will be televised on the Nine Network nationally.

    The New South Wales State of Origin team for the 2018 series remains a mystery, with new coach Brad Fittler facing plenty of selection headaches. So we want you to tell us - and all your mates - who should start for Blues in Game 1 with our team picker.

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    The Crowd Says (34)

    • February 14th 2018 @ 7:51am
      Peter Phelps said | February 14th 2018 @ 7:51am | ! Report

      Whilst I think Melbourne will batter Leeds, I think it will be a great game to kick off the season. I always enjoy these WCC games as they introduce something different and I certainly intend to be there.

      • February 14th 2018 @ 12:55pm
        AussieIrish said | February 14th 2018 @ 12:55pm | ! Report

        Not being really in the know about League, I am curious to why you think Melbourne will batter Leeds?

        • Roar Guru

          February 14th 2018 @ 1:30pm
          Sleiman Azizi said | February 14th 2018 @ 1:30pm | ! Report

          Melbourne were so dominant last year it was frightening.

          Having said that, Leeds struggled in 2016 before bouncing back last and even tually clicking into gear later in the season. They have a lot of big game experience as a club and thoroughly outplayed League Leaders Castleford in the Grand Final.

          It’s no guarantee that Melbourne will win. But then, it’s no guarantee that Leeds will either.

          Good luck to both teams.

        • February 15th 2018 @ 8:31am
          Peter Phelps said | February 15th 2018 @ 8:31am | ! Report

          Melbourne have a very strong team at least on paper, are playing on home soil and will have the majority of the crowd behind them. I watch quite a bit of Superleague and have seen Leeds play both last season and this and I do not think Leeds can pull it off.

          I might be wrong, I am a Storm supporter after all but I would take decent odds if they were available.

    • Roar Rookie

      February 14th 2018 @ 8:06am
      Joe said | February 14th 2018 @ 8:06am | ! Report

      Was really hoping Sam Kasiano would make his debut in this game but he got injured in the trials. Really looking forward to seeing how Brodie Croft performs in this game. Storm are definitely well into transition with the youngsters like Croft, Curtis Scott, Vunivalu, JAC, Brandon Smith and NAS all becoming regulars in the team.

    • Roar Guru

      February 14th 2018 @ 8:17am
      The Barry said | February 14th 2018 @ 8:17am | ! Report

      That was an interesting write up but completely unnecessary to veer off into Roosters salary cap speculation.

      What an achievement by Smith if the Storm get the win.

      I haven’t heard but if he hasn’t broken the record for most games as captain, he must be very close.

      With 358 club games, 42 Origins, 56 tests, two Dally Ms, two Golden boots, two premierships, two world cups, potentially two WCCs, who knows how many origin and test wins – and most of the above as captain he’s putting a convincing case forward to be considered as the greatest of all time…

      • February 14th 2018 @ 9:32am
        Duncan Smith said | February 14th 2018 @ 9:32am | ! Report

        Smith holds the record for breaking the most records, that’s for sure.

      • February 14th 2018 @ 2:38pm
        Albo said | February 14th 2018 @ 2:38pm | ! Report

        In my books, Smith is already the GOAT ? Another year or two will just add more records to his growing list of achievements. Then I suspect he might aim at a similar record as a coach. The smartest guy on the park almost always.

        • February 15th 2018 @ 8:34am
          Peter Phelps said | February 15th 2018 @ 8:34am | ! Report

          He has said that he is not interested in coaching though Bellamy reckons he would be very good at it. That was some time ago so who knows,,,,,

    • Roar Guru

      February 14th 2018 @ 8:24am
      The Barry said | February 14th 2018 @ 8:24am | ! Report

      He’s also been Dally M hooker of the year seven times, captain of the year three times, rep player four times, leading point scorer once, Wally Lewis medallist twice.

      A remarkable career despite a penchant for signing multiple contracts and choking out mates…?

      • February 14th 2018 @ 9:37am
        Paul said | February 14th 2018 @ 9:37am | ! Report

        TB, I think it’s hard to go past Thurston as the greatest of all time. A champion bloke on and off the field, a real giver back to not only the game as whole but to his people and a rare talent on the field.

        I have way too many question marks over some of the issues that have either been started by the Storm or have involved Smith and others while playing there, eg the salary cap issues.

        Both are great players but Thurston passes the pub test for me.

        • Roar Guru

          February 14th 2018 @ 11:07am
          Emcie said | February 14th 2018 @ 11:07am | ! Report

          I think if you’re going to argue about Greatest Player of All Time then accomplishments have to be weighted heavily and Smith easily edges out Thurston there. If we’re talking about who’s the better footballer though then my money’s on Thurston

          • Roar Guru

            February 14th 2018 @ 12:35pm
            The Barry said | February 14th 2018 @ 12:35pm | ! Report

            JTs got an impressive list of achievements behind him too:

            Two premierships, 1 world cup, one WCC

            Four Dally Ms, four times halfback of the year, three times 5/8, once captain of the year, one Churchill, two Provan/Summons, one Wally Lewis, one Ken Stephens, most consecutive Origin matches, highest all time Origin point scorer, four MOM awards in four games in 2013 world cup,

        • Roar Guru

          February 14th 2018 @ 12:25pm
          The Barry said | February 14th 2018 @ 12:25pm | ! Report

          Fair enough Paul.

          I agree with everything you’ve said although JT’s career has not been without controversy.

          I wouldn’t try to change anyone’s mind if they picked Thurston, Smith, Joey, Lewis, Lamb….all (and more) have genuine claims.

          As Emcie says I think achievements have to come into the discussion at some point and Smith is amassing a formidable bank of titles and awards.

          One other thing in Smith’s favour is that if you’re picking the best half or 5/8 of all time, JT is one of many with claims. When you’re discussing hookers it’s really Smith first, daylight second.

      • Roar Guru

        February 14th 2018 @ 10:04am
        Nat said | February 14th 2018 @ 10:04am | ! Report

        Haha, Raised him up just high enough to crack him in the shins!

        • Roar Guru

          February 14th 2018 @ 12:17pm
          The Barry said | February 14th 2018 @ 12:17pm | ! Report

          It was petty but I couldn’t resist.

          It was more to get a rise out of Storm followers than necessarily to have a crack at Smith. Melbourne fans are second only to Souths fans for how sensitive they are and easy to niggle.

          But those things are the elephant in the room when discussing Smith’s legacy, just as some people can’t help but bring up pingers when Joey’s career is discussed or Gallen and peptides.

          • Roar Guru

            February 14th 2018 @ 4:32pm
            Nat said | February 14th 2018 @ 4:32pm | ! Report

            Bloody Gallen! That F…, Pep…, che…, punch… Oh ok!

      • February 15th 2018 @ 6:02am
        Dave said | February 15th 2018 @ 6:02am | ! Report

        Cam Smith’s won wally lewis medal 4 times!

      • February 15th 2018 @ 6:14am
        Jacka said | February 15th 2018 @ 6:14am | ! Report

        4 wally medals

    • Roar Guru

      February 14th 2018 @ 8:45am
      ScottWoodward.me said | February 14th 2018 @ 8:45am | ! Report

      The Storm may have Skinny Sam out but Leeds some bigger challenges.
      Brett Delaney has a concussion from last Friday and will be tested, and it will be a suprise if Mitch Garbutt (quad) recovers. Also they have Anthony Mullally (broken finger Fri) replaced by Josh Walters, Mikolaj Oledzki (shoulder), Brett Ferres (knee), Keith Galloway (Achilles) and Nathaniel Peteru (bicep).

    • Roar Guru

      February 14th 2018 @ 10:26am
      Nat said | February 14th 2018 @ 10:26am | ! Report

      Looking forward to this game. We know what to expect from Melbourne but the English tend to play a more expansive game. I wonder if Cuthbertson is still a wrecking ball in defence? Hall v Vuni should be good as well. Too bad we won’t get to see ‘Keithy’ running around. Big night for Croft as well, I wish the young fella well. I can’t think of bigger shoes to fill in recent time.

      • Roar Guru

        February 14th 2018 @ 1:10pm
        ScottWoodward.me said | February 14th 2018 @ 1:10pm | ! Report

        Nat
        What about when Brandon comes on to play hooker? Big shoes?

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