Wigan Warriors v St George Illawarra Dragons
DW Stadium, Wigan
Sunday, Feb 27 7.15pm (Mon 6.15am NSW, 5.15am Qld)
Red-and-white dynamite! St George Illawarra face off against Wigan in what should be an intriguing, free-flowing World Club Challenge event over in the old dart.
Two famously successful clubs come together for the title of World Champions – it doesn’t get much better.
Having won their respective local competitions in 2010 the two teams now have more success in their sights but only one can come away with the silverware.
The Dragons have already touched down in England for their quick assault on the crown, fresh from two impressive trial wins over South Sydney and the Bulldogs. They have a 21-man squad on tour – 14 of the boys played in the team who downed the Roosters last October for the NRL trophy.
While the cohesion and combinations from last year will certainly be beneficial it’s a difficult task to play well on the other side of the world. The team have gone from a brutal summer to the bitter cold, they have endured a 20 hours-plus flight and are in a new time zone… and they have yet to get into the swing of the new season.
While the prestige of winning the match would be huge, the jury remains out as to how beneficial – if at all – this exercise will be for the preparation of the Dragons’ NRL title defence.
The Warriors come into the match fresh from three winning trial matches and their opening two league games for the new season. They opened their account with a 16-all draw against St Helens, the team they defeated for the premiership last year, and then pummelled Bradford 44-10 last weekend.
With English conditions, a few more games under their belt and even English officials, the Wigan boys certainly have some aspects in their favour.
Watch Out Warriors: The Dragons’ left-side attack is their bread and butter; they will stick with what they know, just as they have for the past two seasons. After the likes of Michael Weyman, Trent Merrin and Dan Hunt roll forward the Red V will shift the ball to the left with gusto. They will do so with Ben Creagh hitting the edge of the ruck and fullback Darius Boyd sweeping around the back giving the Dragons two halves options.
The flat-running Creagh usually isolates smaller defenders and if more than one defender commits his way, Jamie Soward or Ben Hornby will go out to Boyd instead. The fullback can then find Matt Cooper and Brett Morris in space.
While the left side is their strength the Dragons proved in the grand final they are more than capable of going right also. Internationals Mark Gasnier and Jason Nightingale (who made a game-high three line-breaks in the NRL decider) are waiting in the wings out right to punish loose defence.
Watch Out Dragons: Wigan has some great off-the-cuff players who can be unpredictable and therefore hard to read. Former Dragon and Panther Amos Roberts, Kiwi half Thomas Leuluai and youngster Sam Tomkins are all players who can create something from nothing. Roberts has speed and flair out wide and comes into the game on the back of a two-try effort against Bradford. Tomkins posted 18 try assists last season and also managed 23 line-breaks.
Then there are try-scoring machines Pat Richards and Darrell Goulding who finished one-two on the 2010 top try-scorers list with 29 and 25 respectively. Former Wests Tiger Richards also had 25 line-breaks to his name.
Where It Will Be Won: Defence. We always hear about the attacking nature of the British game but English teams don’t often come up against defence like the Dragons boasted last season.
St George Illawarra averaged just 11.8 points against them per game on their way to glory. In contrast, the Warriors leaked 15.2 points a game, still an impressive effort, but not quite in the class of the Red V.
The speed of the ruck will be critical for the English side. If they can’t get some quick-play-the-balls they will have a hard time cracking the Dragons’ line. The Dragons will try to choke the Warriors into mistakes and if they succeed, it could get ugly.
The History: These two teams have never met in competition; however, they come into the match after very successful seasons. The Dragons claimed the NRL title after a 17-7 regular season saw them clinch a second successive minor premiership; three good finals wins sealed the deal, culminating in a 32-8 win over the Sydney Roosters in the grand final.
The Warriors were minor premiers too, in the English Super League. They carded a 22-5 regular season record and although they lost their opening finals match they regrouped to win three straight, the last a 22-10 grand final win over rivals St Helens.
As far as the history of the WCC goes, Australian teams have won the past two matches (although Melbourne’s 2010 win is somewhat tainted) but the English sides hold an 11-7 overall advantage. Seven of the past 10 matches have gone the way of the northern hemisphere side.
Wigan holds the most WCC titles, having won on three occasions in 1987, 1991 and 1994.
This is the Dragons’ first attempt at the trophy, although coach Wayne Bennett won with Brisbane in 1992 (over Wigan) and the Super League version of the competition in 1997, and lost on three other occasions in 1994 (to Wigan), 2001 and 2007.
Conclusion: One always wonders whether a premiership team is bound to experience a title “hangover” but to date the Dragons look sharp and alert and ready to go. They dismantled the Rabbitohs and Bulldogs in trial games before travelling over to England and look like they are already somewhat back into their groove.
Wigan are more than capable on their day, particularly with Australian coach Michael McGuire (ex-Storm) at the helm, but one thinks the Dragons’ style will choke them out of the contest. Look for the Red V to fly the NRL flag with distinction and win by eight.
Match officials: To be announced.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live from 6am (NSW), 5am (Qld). Channel Nine – Delayed from 12am Wednesday (NSW).
* Statistics: NRL Stats.