AS CHALLENGES go, the one Leeds Rhinos are now tackling is like climbing Everest, in winter, without oxygen – and barefoot.
Rhinos will play Melbourne Storm in the World Club Challenge in just four days’ time. A 17-strong playing group flew out on Friday morning, UK time, arriving in Melbourne on Saturday night. Two more players followed them 24 hours later, giving the squad just four full days to prepare for the game.
It is a daunting task. Storm are rated as one of the best club sides in history. They topped the fiercely competitive NRL table by six points last year, losing only four times in 24 games and hammered North Queensland Cowboys 34-6 in the Grand Final.
Captain Cameron Smith is the world’s best player and they are a team packed with talent. It will be the fourth time Storm and Rhinos have squared up for the right to call themselves world champions and Melbourne lead the series two wins to one, all of those being played in Leeds. With the advantage of their own field and local conditions, almost everything is in their favour.
Where the visitors may have a slight edge is in match fitness. Storm’s season has yet to begin, though they lost narrowly to Newcastle Knights in a hastily-arranged trial game last week.
Leeds have two Super League games under their belt and will be more battle-hardened, but – with respect to Warrington Wolves and Hull KR – they will need to be far better.
Coach Brian McDermott has said as much and hinted Leeds will need to throw “something different” at Storm to have any chance of success. What that means remains to be seen, but McDermott has regularly come up with a winning game plan against the odds in big matches.
Maybe Storm will take them lightly, perhaps they will be under-prepared. If so, Leeds can give them a game, but Rhinos are certainly the underdogs and having six forwards unavailable – five of them front-rowers – makes the task even harder.
But that’s no reason not to take part in what will be an historic occasion. Storm were unwilling to travel to England, as was originally planned and Leeds’s decision to go Down Under has saved the event. It is an opportunity for Europe’s top club to showcase themselves to a huge potential audience and to boost their contacts in rugby league’s biggest market.
If they do win, it will be Leeds’s greatest achievement and probably the best by any team from this country.
Wigan did something similar against Brisbane Broncos in 1994, but – as McDermott has conceded – the NRL has advanced much further since then than has the British game.
The teams who do battle on Friday will not be the ones who won their respective Grand Finals, which diminishes the concept a little.
But Rhinos should be applauded for giving it a go, when it would have been easy to stay at home and concentrate on Super League.
For many of the players and fans who have made the trip, it could be a once in a lifetime experience – and it definitely beats trekking over the M62 to Warrington or Widnes.