Dave Craven: First small steps towards expansion should excite everybody

LIKE many rugby league folk in 1997, I was genuinely excited by the prospect of some of the world’s greatest stars arriving here to showcase their skills in the World Club Championship.

Warrington's Kevin Perry is tackled by St George-Illawarra's Joel Thompson and Tyson Frizell at the Halliwell Jones Stadium, Warrington. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture: Mike Egerton/PA.

There would be Alfie Langer, Steve Renouf and Gordon Tallis, Andrew Ettingshausen and the young tyro Mat Rogers to name just a few and to witness up close and in the flesh.

To be able to go watch so many players – in club colours, not for the Kangaroos – at places like Wheldon Road, Headingley and Central Park was something I never imagined would happen.

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Yet, at the same time, there was an underlying, nagging sense of trepidation that it might all go horribly wrong, a gulf in class between the Australian competition (plus Auckland Warriors) and the game here ruthlessly exposed.

This unease was well placed; it did turn out calamitously for Super League sides, still in the infancy of full-time professionalism, with none of the dozen clubs even getting past the quarter-final stages.

Hapless Halifax alone were hammered 70-6 in Canberra and 76-0 by Brisbane, but there more depressing results, most notably Auckland sweeping 70 points past St Helens and another 64 past Bradford Bulls, 
Super League’s leading sides at that time.

However, nearly two decades on and there was no such anxiety or foreboding as the World Club Series – the nearest incarnation since that ill-fated event of 1997 – rolled into the north of England this week.

Even if South Sydney thrash 
St Helens tomorrow night for the World Club Challenge crown and Wigan Warriors are vanquished by Brisbane this evening in the second instalment of the inaugural competition, which opened with Warrington Wolves and 
St George-Illawarra last night, this is undoubtedly progress.

This is because a solid, sustainable foundation has finally been put down for something more substantial than the traditional one-off challenge between the champions of each hemisphere’s domestic competition.

The naysayers will argue that the likes of St-George, who finished 11th in the NRL last term, and Brisbane, who just sneaked into the play-offs in eighth, are not worthy of taking part. But that is nonsense.

Crucially, they want to be here. How many Australian clubs have said that since 1997?

No true rugby league fan could not be enticed by the prospect of watching such a name as Brisbane. Likewise Benji Marshall. And that’s before we get onto that red and green machine at Russell Crowe’s Rabbitohs.

The most important aspect of this weekend is that it has got people talking once more about the prospect of developing ‘international club’ rugby league akin to what football has with its Champions League and union’s European (Heineken) Cup.

It is the best way to grow the sport and six clubs here over one weekend – as opposed to 22 teams over countless weeks playing both sides of the world in the logistical nightmare of 1997 – is an ideal way to start.

Players I have spoken to this weekend, and administrators, are truly invigorated by it all.

There will be teething problems and it will not all go according to plan.

But, thankfully, the NRL powers-that-be are now open to the idea of expansion in this way and, at last, there is the chance for something wonderful really to grow.

Just give it time.