WCC: PREVIEW: 2019 World Club Challenge
Decade definers face off to be crowned World Champions
Alongside Leeds as one of the defining English clubs of the 2010s, the Wigan Warriors have established a reputation for expecting success annually. Beating Warrington 12-4 in last year's Super League Grand Final to tie the Rhinos with four premierships this decade, the powerhouse club has struggled to replicate that success against Australian teams. Defeating Cronulla two years ago after going down four times previously against the Dragons, Roosters and Broncos (twice), new coach Adrian Lam will be hoping to make a statement against the reigning NRL premiers following a staid opening to Super League XXIV. Losing to St. Helens before getting the better of Leeds last week, the Warriors are set to field a formidable squad featuring a number of players who helped England claim the Baskerville Shield over New Zealand in the end-of-season internationals last year.
Four months on from their legendary performance against Melbourne, the Sydney Roosters will begin their campaign to become the first team in over two decades to record back-to-back NRL titles. Meeting Wigan once before in the 2014 World Club Challenge, five players remain from the side that prevailed 36-14 in Sydney five years ago; while of the players to have downed the Storm 21-6 last September, only Blake Ferguson (Eels), Dylan Napa (Bulldogs) and Ryan Matterson (Tigers) have departed, with Latrell Mitchell opting to remain in Australia to represent the Indigenous All Stars. Returning to England for the first time since 2016, the Roosters have never lost a World Club Challenge/Series fixture with four wins dating back to the concept's origins in 1976. Standing alongside the Storm as the dominant Australian team of the decade with two premierships and four minor premierships, the Roosters will be out continue a run of dominance against Northern Hemisphere clubs having averaged 34 points and conceding just 7 points per game.
Who to watch: After a tumultuous period away from football over the past 18 months, former Man of Steel Zak Hardaker will be out to cap off his return from exile with a starring role in one of league's most prestigious fixtures. Suspended from Castleford's 2017 Grand Final squad and spending the entirety of last season on the sidelines after testing positive to cocaine, the 27-year-old fullback has shown plenty of promise upon his return with Super League's reigning champions. Best known to Australian audiences for a brief stint with Penrith back in 2016, Hardaker's personal duel opposite James Tedesco is set to have a major bearing on determining which team finishes ahead on the scoreboard, while also providing the ex-England international the chance to prove he can still match it against the NRL's best despite recent controversy.
Set to make his club debut for the Roosters after defecting from foundation rivals South Sydney over the off-season, Angus Crichton will have his sights set on becoming one of the game's premier forwards under the guidance of Trent Robinson. Enjoying a strong 2018 on a personal note as one of 13 debutants in Brad Fittler's triumphant New South Wales team, the 23-year-old second-rower will be striving to achieve the ultimate team goal after falling one game short last year, ironically going down against his new teammates in a tightly-fought 12-4 preliminary final loss. Set to bolster an already potent right side attack, look for Crichton to cause opponents plenty of headaches as the beneficiary of Cooper Cronk's lethal passing game close to the line.
The favourite: Despite Wigan playing on home turf and with two Super League fixtures already under their belt, the Roosters have been heavily favoured to prove too strong as a result of fielding 13 players from last year's NRL decider.
My tip: While Wigan will be better prepared to take on the incumbent NRL premiers than Leeds twelve months earlier, the class of the Roosters should be enough to ensure the World Club Challenge title is retained by Australia. Roosters by 10.
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