A brief history of rugby league’s World Club Challenge – and all the fun that’s happened along the way
This year’s World Club Challenge (WCC) is now just weeks away, and Penrith and NRL fans alike will be hoping the Panthers can avenge their one-point loss to St Helens last year by beating the Wigan Warriors and returning the WCC trophy to Australia.
The WCC is a strange beast, beginning in 1976 as a one-off “unofficial” challenge between the Roosters and St Helens, and then promptly forgotten for the next decade until it was revived in 1987 for another on-off contest between Manly and Wigan.
In 1987 the WCC gained official recognition and was played somewhat spasmodically in 1987, 1989, 1991, 1992 and 1994 before another hiatus saw the concept shelved until it was brought back in 1997 as part of the breakaway Super League competition.
That 1997 year could only be described as an absolute shemozzle. 22 teams from both Australian and English Super League competitions competed for the title, eventually won by the Brisbane Broncos who defeated the Hunter Mariners in the final.
It was resurrected once more in 2000 to be contested annually between the winners of the premierships in Australia and Europe. All games between 2000 and 2013 were played in the UK until 2014, when Australia hosted for the first time in 20 years.
The format changed once again in 2015 when exhibition matches were added to the spectacle, before it returned to the single game format in 2018. Covid saw the WCC cancelled in both 2021 and 2022.
Plenty has happened along the World Club Challenge journey – let’s look at some WCC trivia and fun facts.
The Roosters won the very first challenge, hold the record for the most wins with five, have never lost one, and are the only team with back-to-back WCC wins (2019 and 2020).
The record for the biggest winning margin belongs to South Sydney who defeated St Helens by 39 points to nil in 2015.
Both Melbourne and Wigan have won four each, but the Storm tally was reduced to three when their 2010 title was stripped due to their infamous salary cap breaches.
The very first match in 1976 was held mid-season, when Arthur Beetson led the Roosters to a 25 points to 2 victory over St Helens.
The 1994 match between Wigan and the Broncos drew the biggest WCC crowd when 54,220 people saw Wigan take the title by 20 points to 14, while the record for the smallest crowd of just 10,300 belongs to the 1997 Super League WCC when Brisbane played the Hunter Mariners at Mt Smart Stadium.
Both St Helens and the Leeds Rhinos share the record for the most losses, with five each, and they have also won three each.
The 1987 clash between Wigan and Manly saw Manly’s tearaway Ronn Gibbs become the first player to be sent off in a WCC game when he elbowed Wigan’s Joe Lydon. Wigan won the day by 8 points to 2, with no tries being scored.
Penrith have lost each of their three WCC matches.
Heading into this year’s game, honours are even, with Australian and English teams each with 14 wins each, after allowing for Melbourne’s 2010 win being discarded.
Ian Gildart, father of Oliver Gildart who played for the Tigers, Roosters and Dolphins in recent years, played in Wigan’s WCC wins in 1987 and 1991. Son Oliver scored a try in Wigan’s 2017 WCC win over Cronulla and also played in their 2019 loss to the Roosters.
The Brisbane Broncos were the first Australian club to win the WCC on English soil when the defeated Wigan by 22 points to 8 in 1992.
Leeds Rhinos’ great Kevin Sinfield captained his club in an incredible six WCCs, winning in 2005, 2008 and 2012, and losing in 2009, 2010 and 2013.
The 1997 Super League WCC was a long and complicated affair, with 22 teams from the Australian and English Super Leagues fighting it out for $1m in prize money. Incredibly, 66 games were played leading up to the final, and of the 63 games between northern and southern hemisphere teams, 56 were won by teams from the Australian Super League.
Former Balmain outside back Michael Withers won WCCs with the Bradford Bulls in 2002, 2004 and 2006.
Melbourne captain Cameron Smith played half back and won the man of the match award in the Storm’s 2010 victory over Leeds. Both the man of the match award and the WCC were subsequently stripped following Melbourne’s salary cap breach.
The Roosters’ Brett Morris and Leeds’ Ryan Hall share the record for most WCC tries with 5 each.
Adam Cuthbertson played in Manly’s 2009 WCC win and later in losses for Leeds in both 2016 and 2018.
Leeds bench forward Mitch Garbutt became the second player sent off in a WCC decider in their 38 points to 4 loss against the Cowboys in 2016 after landing a straight right on the chin of James Tamou.
Brett Morris won the WCC man of the match award in 2019 after scoring three tries in the first half in the Roosters’ 20 points to 8 victory over Wigan. He also crossed for two tries in the Dragons’ 2011 WCC win, also against Wigan.