It’s a big one. The World Club Challenge. Live on Sky Sports. The Super League champions Leeds Rhinos against the NRL title winners Melbourne Storm.
Brian McDermott’s side have gone Down Under to test their mettle against Australia’s best. Here are three head to heads that might decide it.
Billy Slater v Jack Walker
The best full back in the world, one of the best of all time. Billy Slater is still going. He’s signed a new deal for the 2018 campaign. And 2017 was another vintage year for the Storm number one.
He returned from a shoulder reconstruction to help his side to glory in the NRL Grand Final, scoring as the Storm crushed the North Queensland Cowboys 34-6, winning the Clive Churchill medal for man of the match in the process.
Melbourne Storm vs Leeds Rhinos
February 16, 2018, 8:30am
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Slater then added a second World Cup winner’s medal to his collection, starting in that tight 6-0 win over England.
A former Dally M Medal player of the year winner, Slater will play his 300th NRL game this season and if he continues with State of Origin, a 30th appearance for Queensland.
And he’s still got it on the evidence of last season. Top of the charts for try assists, offloads and third in the try ranks proves his importance for Craig Bellamy’s side. Will he win his third World Club Challenge this Friday?
On one side of the field, one of the greatest full-backs Rugby League has seen. On the other, an 18-year-old yet to play a full professional season. But what an opportunity for Jack Walker. He’s got a chance to test himself against the best and learn a tip or two in the process and how he’s earned it.
Walker has already impressed in Leeds’ 100% start to the new season, especially in the opening game against Warrington. He pulled off numerous try-saving tackles, perfecting the art of holding the ball up over the line. You’d have thought Walker might have to contribute a few more of those come Friday morning.
Leeds travelled to Australia on the back of a 20-11 win over Hull KR
So will that big occasion faze him? Well, not if the Grand Final is anything to go by.
Walker had Castleford’s metronomic Luke Gale aiming kicks in his direction and he dealt with everything the Tigers threw at him. Cameron Smith and the Storm might be a little different, but the stage is set for one Super League’s brightest stars.
Cameron Smith v Matt Parcell
The ‘Big Three’ have broken up. Cooper Cronk’s move to the Sydney Roosters means the Storm’s sensational spine of Slater, Cronk and Cameron Smith is no more.
But Smith, like Slater, is the best in the game in his position, and again possibly of all-time. And like a fine wine, the skipper seems to get better with age.
11 years on from his first Dally M Medal, Smith picked up a second in 2017, after leading the Storm to another NRL Premier. And then he got his hands on the World Cup again, leading to his second Golden Boot award, given to the world’s best player. He’s a machine. A goal-kicking machine. An organisational kicking machine. And a tackling machine.
There’s no doubt Cronk is a massive loss for the Storm in 2018. But with Smith and Slater still playing on, they still possess some of Rugby League’s greatest ever talent. And if 2017 is anything to go by, there’s still plenty left in the tank for Smith.
If rumours are to be believed, Matt Parcell had a few suitors eyeing him up for an NRL return in the off-season. But the hooker is committed to Leeds for now. And he’s got the chance to show his countrymen exactly what they’re missing.
Parcell will face the world’s best across the ruck in Cameron Smith. But the Rhinos’ number nine should give him enough to think about. We’re only two rounds in and Parcell is already notching up good numbers from dummy half, 16 runs, only behind James Roby in the whole competition and over 100 metres to his name.
He’s an important defensive cog for Leeds as well, with 76 tackles so far. And Parcell should be fresher this season, with Brad Dwyer available to spell him from the interchange bench. The hooker will have to perform on Friday if Leeds are to get close.
Jesse Bromwich v Adam Cuthbertson
It’s fair to say 2017 was full of ups and downs for Jesse Bromwich. Caught up in an alleged drugs scandal in Canberra after the Anzac test, the prop forward paid heavily. He was suspended and fined by the Storm and also dropped from their leadership group. But Bromwich also had the New Zealand captaincy taken off him and was stood down from World Cup duty as well. He’s learnt a harsh lesson.
But the season ended with a chink of light; Bromwich finished 2017 as a NRL winner once again, starting in their win over the Cowboys. And the prop will be aiming for further redemption in 2018, beginning with the World Club Challenge.
He’ll need to step up in the pack; internationals Jordan McLean and Tohu Harris have both departed from the title-winning side. Bromwich needs to prove 2017 was just a blip and go back to proving why he’s one of the best props in Rugby League.
If Leeds’ pack is to fire, they’ll need Adam Cuthbertson on top of his game. He’s another Australian returning home and he knows all about the Storm from his time with four different NRL clubs.
Cuthbertson won’t run through packs for huge metres, but his ability to gain ground and then offload the ball is up there with the best in Super League. He’s topped the offloads charts for two of the three campaigns he’s played in the competition. And Cuthbertson has an eye for the try line too.
He grabbed an important four-pointer against Hull KR, spotting a gap and breaking the line. That makes him a huge weapon when Leeds get close. Don’t underestimate his defence either. The forward is second in the Rhinos rankings with 91 tackles in the two games. Cuthbertson needs a big one on Friday morning.
Tune into Sky Sports Arena from 8.30am on Friday to catch Melbourne Storm v Leeds Rhinos in the World Club Challenge.