RL Weekly: World Glory, Super League Hunger & Ill-Timed Scandal

St Helens face Penrith Panthers in the World Club Challenge
09:00, 16 Feb 2023

Adrenalin, excitement, opportunity and the usual side helping of scandal. Rugby league continues to be pretty unique in its approach to making headlines on the eve of a new season. But for St Helens at least, this is a hugely positive week in which they can prove to Super League’s southern-hemisphere critics that the British game is alive and kicking.

A warm-up win over St George Illawarra Dragons was impressive, but Saturday’s World Club Challenge against NRL champions Penrith Panthers is the big one. A chance for Saints and for Super League to show the NRL that rugby league still exists outside of Australasia.

“As long as we put a good performance in then it might just bring Super League up to the level it should be,” Saints star Jack Welsby tells The Sportsman on a call from their sun-drenched hotel this week. “It’s always looked down upon and the NRL is such a big competition. Super League needs to be at that level and that is what we are striving for.”


England international Welsby has already been attracting interest from NRL clubs on Saints’ trip Down Under, which sees them miss the start of the Betfred Super League season in order to have a shot at world glory.

The 21-year old was Super League’s Young Player of the Year last season, but was one of the England stars criticised for his performance in their gut-wrenching World Cup semi-final defeat to Samoa which brought a thundering end to a tournament that had promised so much.

So having come up short on the world stage against a Samoa side full of Penrith stars, does Saturday’s game represent unfinished business?

“One hundred per cent,” Welsby responds. “We showed what we could do in the first game pretty comprehensively [when England thrashed Samoa 60-6 on Welsby’s international debut], then obviously the semi-final didn’t go the way we wanted it to.

“We have unfinished business - that’s probably a strong phrase - but I want to compete against the best and these are the best in the NRL.”

The heat has been a factor for Saints stars more used to freezing January temperatures than the melting midday sun of Manly beach, but the players maintain that regardless of Saturday’s result they will return refreshed and in perfect shape to launch their latest domestic title defence.

New head coach Paul Wellens could have a World Club Challenge trophy in his office before his side even step out to try to win a fifth successive Grand Final.

“It’s been pretty seamless with Wello, like nothing has changed,” says Welsby. “He has his own points of view and understanding of the game and I’ve every faith that we will go in and do him justice this week.”

For one weekend at least Super League fans need to forget their club allegiances and get behind this brilliant St Helens team. It is a huge opportunity. An opportunity to display the very best of British rugby league on the global stage, and to remind the Aussies that we can play a bit too.

So what chance rival fans getting behind Saints?

“I’d like to think so,” Welsby adds. “But being a boyhood Wigan fan I know how hard it would be to cheer on Saints at the other side of the world.”

From Welsby and world domination, to Warrington and Westerman, with the latter two attracting unwanted controversy just as the competition launches for 2023.

The Wolves will kickstart the new season at home to Grand Finalists Leeds on Thursday night, but will be without star signing Josh McGuire for the first seven matches after the former NRL star was banned for a derogatory slur that saw him sent off in a pre-season game against Leigh Leopards.

It is the kind of self-destructive incident that rugby league seems to be unable to shake off as a sport, Daryl Powell’s big-name signing using language so unnecessary that it will also see him undertake mandatory education. Powell, who suffered a wretched first season as boss before rebuilding for this breakthrough year, will be absolutely seething.

And the same can be said of Powell’s former club Castleford Tigers, who were forced into crisis PR this week when a video nasty emerged of their talisman Joe Westerman allegedly showing him involved in a sex act after a boozy night out one week before the new season.

His club acted swiftly in issuing statements and sanctioning the player with fines and the promise of similar educational courses. Unfortunately by issuing a statement effectively confirming that Westerman was indeed the man in the video, this served to blow the story up from a viral online video into a national news story, an awful episode for all involved.

Thankfully there will soon be enough top-class action to drown out the controversy and both the Betfred Championship and Challenge Cup have already produced terrific drama. Toulouse Olympique and Featherstone Rovers are unsurprisingly the early Championship pacesetters, while Ince Rose Bridge thrilled fans watching The Sportsman’s live coverage of their Cup win over local rivals Wigan St Patricks last weekend.

The action continues on The Sportsman this week as the Midlands Hurricanes host Cornwall in Betfred League 1, in their first ever game at the city’s Alexander Stadium.


*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject to Change

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