Leeds Rhinos’ chief executive Gary Hetherington says winning the World Club Challenge in Melbourne would represent the club’s greatest feat after a deal was finally struck to continue the competition in 2018.
The Super League champions will head Down Under to face their NRL counterparts Melbourne Storm at AAMI Park on Friday, February 16 (8pm).
Although the West Yorkshire club have taken part in seven previous World Club Challenges, winning three, all of them have been on home territory, either at Headingley or Elland Road.
Venturing to the other side of the globe to face an opponent as distinguished as Craig Bellamy’s star-studded side will provide a far different test.
Last night’s confirmation that the game will go ahead thankfully ends weeks of uncertainty since Leeds defeated favourites Castleford Tigers to lift the Super League title last month.
Indeed, there had been some fears that there would be no such defining fixture between the two competitions’ victors for the first time since 1999.
Rhinos had initially hoped to face Melbourne – with Australia stars Cameron Smith and Billy Slater – at the home of Leeds United, but the NRL champions revealed they would not fly to the UK again having done so five times previously and after many of their players had been on World Cup duty, too. Leeds, however, said they would be willing to travel and so, after prolonged negotiations, now become only the second British club to do so.
The other, Wigan, famously beat Brisbane Broncos in 1994 before losing against Sydney Roosters in 2014.
Hetherington, who was at the 2018 World Club Challenge launch in Sydney last night, said: “Winning the World Club Challenge is the ultimate achievement for all Super League and NRL teams and we are excited to be coming to Melbourne to take on the best club team I have seen.
“Leeds Rhinos and Melbourne Storm have been rugby league’s two most successful teams over the past 20 years and it’s fitting for us to come together for the fourth time in the World Club Challenge.
“Each of the other three games in Leeds have been terrific contests and coming to Melbourne represents our biggest-ever challenge. A victory would be the pinnacle in our club’s 128-year history. We hope all the English living in Melbourne come along to support the Rhinos and our fans who visit the city will have a memorable experience.”
Leeds won the World Club Challenge against Storm in 2008, lost two years later (although Melbourne were later stripped of the title due to salary cap breaches) and fell to the Australians in 2013.
Rhinos’ last victory was when they defeated Manly Sea Eagles at Headingley in 2012 while this will be Melbourne’s fifth appearance, having claimed a debut win in 2000 against St Helens.
There had been further confusion last week about the likelihood of the fixture going ahead when New Zealand Warriors announced they would be hosting Melbourne the day after the planned date.
However, Storm, who vanquished North Queensland Cowboys 34-6 in their Grand Final last month, have confirmed they will field their strongest possible side against the English visitors.
Storm chief executive officer Dave Donaghy said: “There’s no better venue or city to host a game that decides the world’s best rugby league team than AAMI Park and Melbourne – Australia’s sporting capital. It’ll be fantastic to see rugby league take centre stage again at AAMI Park having hosted record Storm crowds and the World Cup in 2017.
“I know our Storm members and fans as well as the sports enthusiast will come out to support their Premiership winning team and to see some of the world’s best players take the field.
“Our football department is looking forward to the challenge of being back playing for the World Club Challenge trophy and testing themselves against the Super League champions.”
Although there is no World Club Series as such in 2018, Ladbrokes Challenge Cup holders Hull FC will face St George Illawarra in a previously arranged double-header in Sydney on Saturday, February 17 with reigning World Club champions Wigan tackling South Sydney.
Rugby Football League chief commercial officer and Super League executive director Roger Draper added: “The World Club Challenge is long established as one of the biggest clashes in club rugby league.
“Super League (Europe) Ltd and the NRL have worked closely with both clubs to ensure the 2018 World Club Challenge takes place and we are hopeful that this will be one of the biggest and best ever held.”