More than any of the other three World Club matches on the weekend, the standoff between the Roosters and St. Helens reminded us of the absolute supremacy of the NRL within Rugby League as a whole. Within Australia, the NRL is often seen as the most parochial of football codes, partly because its working-class credentials are thrown into peculiar relief by the comparison with Union (there is no equivalent of Union to stand over AFL), and partly because it doesn’t have the cultural cache of AFL, which is the only other code that comes close in terms of its local, tribal spirit. While there may be events like Origin and the World Cup that bring Rugby League to a wider audience, it’s nevertheless seen as something of a taint on Australian football culture generally, so there’s something a bit refreshing about an event, like the World Club Series, that demonstrates that the NRL truly is a world-class enterprise in terms of the level of talent and skill involved. In many ways, that’s been intensified by the expansion of the World Club Challenge to the World Club Series over the last couple of years, since the focus has been slightly shifted from individual teams to separate sporting franchises. In fact, given that, in the original Series, the NRL and Super League could each only field one team, the event often felt like a condensed World Cup, or a one-off Australia-England match, instead of the NRL-SL comparison it has become over the last couple of years. At the same time, the expansion to three matches means that one league really has the opportunity to wipe the floor with the other, and so far the NRL has been victorious, to the point where some commentators are challenging the viability of the match at all if the NRL continue to operate at such a superior level.
Last year, St. Helens were also in the competition, where they lost 39-0 to the Rabbitohs, a record margin within both the World Club Challenge and the expanded World Club Series. There was something poetic, then, about seeing them take on the Roosters, since St. Helen have something of both the Chooks and the Rabbitohs in their team culture. Like the Roosters, they’re something of a prestige team, at least in the wake of their new stadium at Langtree Park and a recent influx of capital and sponsorship, but like the Rabbitohs they carry a very strong awareness of being a heritage team, and one of the first in the Super League competition. That also makes them feel a bit affiliated with the Dragons and, from a distance, the Roosters could almost have been playing Australia’s Saints – the similarities in uniform are so striking that I found myself wondering they arose in tandem, or whether one influenced the other. Like the Dragons, too, St Helens experienced a golden streak during the 60s and 70s that they have never quite recaptured, partly because it was the kind of streak that only happens once in a team’s lifetime, and is perhaps impossible in an era of massive player mobility. That said, one of the interesting things about watching the Roosters play St. Helens – and one of the interesting things about the World Club Series more generally – is realising how much more common player mobility is within the NRL than within the SL. If anything, the main movements in and out of the SL – and many of the main moves within it – are from NRL players who have nowhere else to go. In Australia, we can assume that going “overseas” to join the SL is a promotion or step up, but really it’s the opposite, and that difference in mobility probably goes some way to explaining the supremacy of the NRL within the World Club Series and the game as a whole.
If it seems like I’m going to some lengths to describe the Roosters-St. Helens match as an NRL match, rather than a World Club Series match, then that’s because this was also the game in which the presence of NRL players within the Super League felt most emphatic. In large part, that was because the most high-profile NRL figures were actually playing for the St. Helens side, rather than the Roosters, due to a large-scale depletion of the Chooks, some of which occurred right at the last minute. Not only was this the first time that Sydney City have played a high-profile match in which Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Mitchell Pearce and James Maloney are all absent, but both Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Boyd Cordner were out on injuries, while it’s clear that Blake Ferguson, the most “prestigious” player on the field, hasn’t quite settled into his fullback game either. As a result, the match played to all the Roosters’ deepest fears about losing their older generation, so it must have been cathartic to Easts fans to see the next generation more than step up to the challenge, with Dylan Napa and Kane Evans putting in a sturdy performance in the forwards (Evans scored the first try), and Jackson Hastings and Jayden Nikorima more than pulling their weight in the halves. While Hastings was more and more hyped during last years’ final season, culminating with his role in the Roosters’ historic victory at Brookdale, it was Nikorima who really stole the show at Langtree. Watching him play, you’d never guess it was his first big debut for the Roosters, where his key role in five of the seven tries allowed Hastings to carry through with five of the seven conversion attempts. Between them, they genuinely are the next generation of Roosters halves, so let’s hope that they get more of a chance at stability than Trent Hodkinson and Josh Reynolds, or even Luke Brooks and Mitchell Moses, since one unfortunate byproduct of increasing player mobility is the growing dearth of the stable environments needed to cultivate effective halves pairs.
While the Roosters, backed by Hastings and Nikorima, may have brought the match to a 38-12 victory – and the cumulative score of the World Club Series to 4-0 – there were some impressive moves from the St. Helens side, although it felt strangely appropriate that most of these centred around Dominique Peyroux, who put in two tries, one of which was partly facilitated by Fergo. This match was Peyroux’s debut for St. Helens after coming from the Warriors and so he felt like an NRL player in all but name, especially since the Warriors are not unlike the Super League in the way in which they form a kind of satellite position within the NRL. If anything, watching Peyroux take on the Roosters was proof that the SL can only combat NRL players with NRL players, while the movement of RTS to the Warriors has created a particular Roosters-Auckland tension that made Peyroux’s aggressive presence all the more exciting to watch as well. At the same time, as several commentators pointed out, St. Helens had been thrashed and somewhat exhausted in their previous match against the Salford Red Devils, suffering a 44-0 loss that centred on a double try for Robert Lui. As a result, there was also a sense that St. Helens had been depleted by Cowboys talent, if only indirectly, once again affirming the overarching sense of the NRL’s supremacy and building expectations to the final showdown between Leeds and North Queensland.
Above and beyond the individual performances of the Roosters and St. Helens, then, part of the pleasure of World Club Series lies in the way it plays with your previous associations and expectations of players. Similarly, it’s also fun to watch a particular class of players – in this case, NRL players who have left the NRL for SL – brought into a new kind of focus and visibility. For both those reasons, the new and expanded Series feels like a complement to the Auckland Nines, a place where you can get a taste of the wider web of the NRL, as well as those players you don’t necessarily hear about at length in week-by-week seasonal commentary. While Rugby Union likes to market itself as the “global” brand of Rugby, thanks in part to its love for Commonwealth ceremony, Rugby League is really the more diasporic sport, something that becomes particularly clear in all the flux and eccentricity of the preseason, which the World Club Series allows the NRL and SL to share in the most enjoyable way.