One of the interesting byproducts of the expansion of the World Club Series to a World Club Challenge is that it means that there is a runners-up round: a chance for the defeated teams in the NRL and SL Grand Finals to have a shot at recouping some of their loss. This time around, the stakes were particularly high, since both runners-up from 2015 suffered particularly brutal and ignominious defeats. On top of that, both teams have been fuelled by the kind of drive and frustration that can only come from a Golden Point loss, with Brisbane losing to North Queensland in extra time during last year’s NRL GF and Wigan losing to Brisbane in extra time during last year’s World Club Challenge. Add to that Wayne Bennett’s newly appointed position as both coach of the Broncos and coach of England, as well as his very public and scathing remarks about the viability of Golden Point in Rugby League deciders, and the stage was set for a particularly volatile match. While it was expected that the NRL would have it over the SL in this year’s Club Challenge, it was also expected that the Warriors would put up the strongest resistance, in the same way that runners-up often put in a stronger performance the following season than the team that beat them for the trophy, just because they’re smarting more and have more to prove.
From its very outset, then, the match between the Broncos and Wigan had a bit of an Origin-like flavour and intensity. Given the high-octane atmosphere of the Challenge as a whole, as well as the new-and-expanded three game structure, that element was already a part of this year’s standoff. As I’ve mentioned in a previous writeup, the second half of the clash between the Cowboys and the Rhinos, in particular, felt like a bit of an Origin flashback, especially when James Tamou was sent off with blood pouring from his face after being decked by Mitch Garbutt. Nevertheless, the Origin connection was there in an even more emphatic way in the Broncos-Wigan match, partly because of the more organic connection between the Broncos themselves and the Maroons, but also because of the critical role that second games play in three-season tournaments like Origin and the World Club Challenge. After all, one of the most dramatic results of the Broncos victory was that it effectively guaranteed that North Queensland would be able to bask in the limelight, even if they didn’t actually win their game against Leeds (which wasn’t very likely anyway), just as the Maroons’ ability to take control of the second game each year has always tended to imbue the third with a certain desperation for New South Wales players and fans. In that sense, one of the most enduring results of the expansion from World Club Challenge to World Club Series is that it has transformed the competition so that it’s not ultimately about clubs, or countries, but leagues – and it has been clear to anyone watching over the last two years that NRL players, generally, are the Maroons of international Rugby League.
While the Roosters and Cowboys games may have been spectacular, then, that sense of the NRL’s supremacy was most pronounced in the Broncos game, just because Brisbane suffered the most nail-biting defeat during last year’s World Club Challenge. In the space of just twelve months, however, they managed to move from a tight 14-12 victory (during Golden Point) to a cruise 42-12, confirming the sense that this was somehow a watershed moment for the NRL more generally, especially given that this overall Challenge also marked Johnathan Thurston’s entry into the highest firmament of Rugby League, compounding his first Grand Final victory and third Golden Boot with about the only international footy honour he hadn’t yet received. It’s a bit of a shame, then, that the NRL has been so plagued with scandal during the offseason, since the Challenge makes it clear that this is really a world-class outfit in terms of sporting prowess, even if it’s often let down by the conduct and culture of its players. In fact, of the nice things about this year’s Challenge was the opportunity to witness young guns whose reputations have not yet been tainted by NRL culture as a whole, which also made this year’s competition feel a bit like an extension of the Nines as well. More specifically, the success and sportsmanship of a younger generation of Broncos players also made it possible to momentarily forget the Emerging Maroons scandal earlier in the year, even or especially as that still seems to be somewhat swept under the rug and left unresolved.
In terms of the younger players, the star was undoubtedly Kodi Nikorima, who joined Corey Oates in scoring two tries for Brisbane. In fact, the Nikorima brother were arguably the standout players in this year’s Challenge more generally, and are well placed to become the next great pair of siblings in the NRL, something we need now that Glenn Stewart has left the country and the Fifitas are out of favour. In fact, the Nikorimas could arguably be added to the roster of great NRL twins, not in terms of their birthdate, but in terms of the unique fact of them both playing in the halves, which begs the fascinating question of how they might look in the same team, or in an Origin scenario. More than any other two players on the field, a good halfback pair has to build a fraternal, brotherly, organic rapport with each other, and yet the growing mutability of team structures and the increasing movement of players means that halves are increasingly threatened in their capacity to do this. In that kind of environment, the Nikorima brothers have the potential to be a truly groundbreaking halves pair, and it was incredible to see them put in such different – yet complementary – performances over the course of the weekend.
While Nikorima was undoubtedly the star of the show, credit also needs to go to Oates, as well as to Greg Eden, who managed to sprint down the entire field for a try in the second half. It was a cruel irony that one of the best SL players in the match was with the Broncos, as Eden brought out some of the deft magic and eye for openings that made him so valuable to Hull FC before he was bought by Brisbane. At the same time, his mad dash reiterated the way in which World Club Challenges tend to intensify and accelerate in their second halves, as if to exponentially recapitulate all the frenzy and excitement of finals season. Only James Roberts continues to be quiet for the Broncos, but Bennett has spoken out about the need to give him time to settle into the club – and Bennett is usually to be trusted when it comes to helping players find their feet in a new context and at a new level. In fact, for a coach who is usually so taciturn and remote, Bennett felt peculiarly present during the Broncos-Wigan match, since as coach of both Brisbane and England it felt as if he had a stake in every player, and was scrutinising both teams. It felt right, then, that he was also the Broncos coach when Brisbane and Wigan met for the first time back in 1992, since he had a peculiar authority and gravity in the buildup to the game that undoubtedly had a great deal to do with the Broncs’ victory.
At the same time, for all the celebrations, there was an unspoken and palpable absence on the Broncos squad: Ben Hunt. While his absence was tactfully not alluded to in the media, it felt as if Brisbane were partly playing for him. It would have been a great opportunity for him to put something of the Grand Final shame behind him, so it felt cruel that his one-week suspension for the GF throw on Kane Linnett seemed to fall during this particular week, especially since the match easily outdid anything the Broncos will be able to bring to Round 1, if only in the level of media hype and frenzy. If anything, it seemed to intensify Hunt’s shame to be excluded from the Challenge, especially since the Cowboys fielded an exact Grand Final team for the first time in Super Club history. Where being a part of the Broncos side would have allowed Hunt to cancel out last year’s GF loss and share in the Cowboys’ victory in a Super Club context, his absence just seemed to unfairly extend the legacy of that knock-o forn another couple of months. While the game was full of positive Brisbane vibes, then, there was something poignant and moving about Hunt’s absence, and I really feel for the guy – it must be hard to lose the Grand Final in the way, then be prevented from showing up for the rematch and then be upstaged by a new up-and-coming halfback who is being hyped just as Hunt himself was a year or so back. And perhaps this is one of those moments when it’s important to think critically about the hype of the Club Challenge as a whole. While the NRL obviously ran rings around the SL, and the Nikorima brothers are clearly a force to be reckoned with, it’s important to realise that Brisbane do have an enormouly gifted halves pair in Hunt and Milford. You can’t let a one-off fumble like last year’s knock-on take away from that, and hopefully Hunt will be able to move on from it once Round 1 kicks off in a couple of weeks, since he really is the best thing to happen to the Broncos in a long time, with or without the World Club Challenge.