The more I think about it, the more I realise that Saints heavy defeat at the hands of South Sydney shouldn't have come as such a big surprise.
After Wigan and Warrington competed well, despite losing, expectations were high for Saints but it was pretty unrealistic on reflection. If you actually look at the Saints side, yes they were champions last year, but the actual BIG GAME experience that they could draw upon was severely limited.
For example, only three of their seventeen had played at major test level (and that includes Mose Masoe for Samoa) and whilst they could draw on their Grand Final experience at Old Trafford, the fact that was against 12 men for 79 minutes really did them no favours when it came to playing Souths.
Compare experience to Wigan’s side against Brisbane who, despite being similarly young in age, have played in not one but three major finals recently and got to tour down under as a squad last year to play in both New Zealand and then in Sydney. Not only that, we had a Full Back in Matty Bowen that once scored an extra time golden point try to win a State of Origin match, plus eight England internationals, six of which have played on a England tour down under and a seventh (Joe Burgess) that went without playing.
No one was beating Souths the way they played Sunday but the point I’m making is that I’m sure our experience in recent times would have helped us at least compete in that game, as proved against Brisbane defensively at least, and I’m sure Saints would have competed better also if they could have claimed a similar level of experience to us.
So I think, taking Saints actual lack of experience into account, it is too soon to write this World Club Series as too wide a margin to compete against. It is a huge challenge to close the gap considering the NRL has a 3.1 million salary cap to our 1.8 million but the new league system for Super League this year can only help surely?
Instead of the “Top 8” play off structure that, to be frank, was pathetically easy for the big teams to qualify for, the new “Super 8s” and then “Top 4” play offs mean that it’ll be hard to avoid having to sweat during the last ten weeks of the season.
The new structure has none of this earning a week off rubbish anymore. The only week off potential champions will get in the last ten weeks of this season is if they haven’t made the cup final at Wembley. Even after Wembley it’s a six weeks in a row climax towards the Grand Final. This should be constant pressure on a multi week basis, something that never happened in the old format.
After early cup exits, Wigan and Saints both had three blank weekends in the run to last years Grand Final and at the back end of the regular season Wigan had suffered losses at Bradford, Hull KR and Widnes that inflicted no damage what so ever towards their Grand Final attempt. This year, if they lose three times in the "Super 8s", they probably won't be making the "Top 4" play offs. That's going to be a huge difference in terms of pressure and intensity.
Constant big games occurring more often in our own league can only help experience towards contests like the World Club Challenge. Let’s remember that before “Top 8” came in, we had “Top 6” and “Top 5” play offs and during those years English sides won seven out of eight World Club Challenge contests between 2001 and 2008.
Of course some would argue the Aussie sides didn’t take those games so seriously and they may have a point, but it’ll still be intriguing to see if a “Top 4” play off and a surely harder league format makes any difference if a repeat World Club Series occurs in twelve months time. Maybe the competition this year was just a year too soon?