Almost three years to the day since the World Club Challenge was last played, NRL premiers Penrith will square off with Super League rivals St Helens on February 18 in a mouth-watering showdown for international rights.
The Panthers are in search of their first WCC success after being defeated by Wigan in 1991 and Bradford in 2004.
The Saints, meanwhile, can make it three titles having beaten the Broncos in 2001 and again in 2007, both times at the Reebok Stadium in Bolton.
The most successful team in the history of the World Club Challenge is the French, who beat St Helena 20-12 last season, to collect their fifth title in the 2020 competition, ahead of Super League powerhouse Wigan.
With the Australian teams holding a tight 14-13 lead overall in the WCC match, the Panthers will be looking to extend their advantage as they look to avenge their 1991 and 2004 playoffs.
Not only did the Panthers succumb to their UK rivals but they managed just one try in each – winger Darren Willis’s goal in the 21-4 loss to Wigan and Luke Priddis’ hooker’s solitary four-pointer in the 22-4 thrashing of Bradford. in ’04.
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Making the job tougher for the ’91 Panthers was the fact that they played the WCC just over a hundred days after their historic grand final victory over Canberra, with stars Mark Geyer and Brad Fittler also missing.
Geyer had undergone surgery on his ankle and Fittler was on tour with the Australian side in Papua New Guinea, making his Test debut against the Kumuls, four days after the Panthers’ team-mates went down to Wigan at Anfield.
The Panthers’ next shot at the WCC crown came in 2004 when they traveled to Huddersfield as a Bradford side featured mighty Englishmen Jamie Peacock, Stuart Fielden, Leon Pryce and classy Kiwis Lesley Vainikolo, Logan Swann and Shontayne Hape.
The NRL champs fielded an almost full-strength side with only Ryan Girdler and Scott Sattler missing from the squad that defeated the Welsh four months earlier in an epic Telstra grand final.
Sattler, who famously beat Todd Byrne in a memorable shootout in the decider, moved to Wests Tigers while Girdler nursed an ankle that kept him out of the first three rounds of 2004.
Receiving the Clive Churchill Medal in the grand final night, Priddis also starred against Bradford, but the Bulls proved much more good in the end as tries from Vainikolo, Pryce, Swann and Robert Parker set up victory.
Bradford also tasted WCC glory in 2002 against Newcastle and in 2006 when they produced a Western Tigers outfit missing last-minute stars Benji Marshall, Pat Richards, Todd Payten, Mark O’Neill, Dene Halatau and Shane Elford, who is now a Panthers performance player. manager
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In 2023, the Panthers will be missing William Kikau and Api Koroisau from the side that beat Parramatta in the grand final, with the star rower transferred to the Bulldogs and the No.9 to the West Tigers.
There is such depth in the premierships that they have lined up backup in Scott Sorensen and Mitch Kenny, both of whom have played key roles in the premierships over the past year and can cut into Ivan Cleary’s starting side.
If the Panthers are to break their WCC drought, they will rely heavily on players Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai, both of whom showed how serious they are about the St Helens showdown by returning a week early from their post-World Cup break to have them. six weeks of preparation.
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If Cleary, Luai, Liam Martin, Isaah Yeo, Stephen Crichton, Brian To’o, Spencer Leniu and Izack Tago had resumed training on January 9 they would not be eligible for the WCC, as protocols dictate that they should at least have health and safety. before they have six weeks of season under their belt they can compete in a professional match.
If the World Cup contingent returned to the January 16 schedule, they would not be eligible for the February 18 clash with the Super Champions.
“The players sacrificed a week of their vacation to come back early and have six weeks of preparation for the St. Helena Games, so that they could be fully fit every chance they get,” said Panthers high-performance manager Tom Lovell.
“Probably the biggest challenge is to be able to reintegrate these guys into the full training team as quickly as possible, so that the season starts again to full fitness.”
For Elford, the sight of club captains Cleary and Yeo and potential World Cup stars back on board was a huge positive in a tough month of training.
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“The boys are back in great shape, the senior boys who hit the ground running in the World Cup,” Elford said.
“The experts know what is needed, they are experienced now, for the third year in a row, they know what is expected.”
The Panthers’ shot at a title in 2022 has been forgotten due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Panthers are sure to leave no stone unturned as they look at the injuries of 2004 and 1991 right as they look for more silverware to break out the trophy cabinet. at the seams, after the three most dominant periods are mentioned.