The two most dominant teams in their respective leagues will finally meet in the World Club Challenge, when Penrith host St Helens next year after the concept had been shelved for the previous two seasons due to the Covid-pandemic.
Saints have claimed an unprecedented four titles in a row and will fancy their chances against the back-to-back NRL premiers, who may have a large portion of their squad unavailable due to their exertions at the Rugby League World Cup.
Fresh off coaching Australia to a third-straight World Cup crown, Mal Meninga backed his former side to cause plenty of issues for the Panthers in the much-anticipated showdown scheduled for February 18th at BlueBet Stadium.
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“I think the way Saints play with a bit more expanse and the way they use the football could worry the Penrith side. They could worry most teams in Australia,” he told Redvee TV.
“I made a comment about the English game and how expansive you play it. There’s not a lot – but there’s a bit of focus on defence. Your ball skills and the way you play, I think, is conducive to beating an Australian side on Australian soil.”
The English side will be lining up for their eighth appearance in the showcase event, having emerged victorious on two separate occasions against Brisbane in 2001 and 2007. Although, they have yet to taste victory away from home.
“The 2023 season is the 150th anniversary of our club,” chairman Eamonn McManus said.
“The only attainable achievement which has eluded us during our history is to be crowned World Club Champions in Australia.”
Penrith have never lifted the trophy, having lost on both times they featured in 1991 and 2004.
It represents another opportunity for the Panthers’ stars to etch their names into club folklore, yet the participation of a number of them still remains up in the air.
Under NRL rules, players are entitled to a seven-to-eight week break after their season has concluded, while they must then train for a minimum of five weeks before making their first appearance of a new campaign.
Due to the exploits of the Australian trio and the fairy tale ride to the final by Samoa, nine players are in doubt.
Nathan Cleary, Liam Martin and Isaah Yeo from the Kangaroos, as well as Stephen Crichton, Spencer Leniu, Jarome Luai, Taylan May, Izack Tago and Brian To’o are all in danger of missing the date.
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Despite voicing their intentions to forgo some of their holiday to play, the club would still need to seek approval from the NRL and the Rugby League Players’ Association to field the men in question.
“There are some guidelines that the NRL and RLPA put in place about leave entitlements,” Penrith’s chief executive Matt Cameron said.
“We haven’t made hard and fast decisions about who will or who won’t play.
“This game is a big deal, but we won’t put anyone at risk.”
Regardless of which players line-up for the Panthers, Meninga praised Ivan Cleary for instilling a sense of identity within his side that is built around effort areas and a pride in their defence.
“Penrith are very well structured,” he said. “They understand what they need to do with the football and they’re very systemic with the way they defend.
“They work really hard for each other, and their line speed is really good, and their marker work is very good.
“You need to break up Penrith’s defence and you do that through great skill, offloading and good support.”
Saints’ 306 errors were more than any other team in the Super League last season, yet perhaps illustrates their willingness to take a risk with the footy.
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They were the third-best attacking side during the campaign with only Wigan and Salford registering more than their 120 tries.
In Agnatius Paasi they have one of the leading proponents of the offload in the English game, while Jack Welsby poses a constant threat after notching 27 try assists in 2022.
Saints were the second-best for metres gained, boasting strong individual carriers of the footy in Tommy Makinson and Konrad Hurrell which helped the club bust more tackles than any other team.
“I feel that could be a strength of the Saints that could upset the Penrith defence and then off the back of that you just don’t know, do you?” Meninga said, when assessing the areas Saints would have to excel in if they were to trouble the Panthers.
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At the end of the year, Kristian Woolf left his post in St Helens in order to take up an assistant coaching role under Wayne Bennett at the Dolphins. This has given an opportunity for club legend Paul Wellens to take the reins with the battle against the NRL powerhouse looming as his first competitive fixture in charge.
“Penrith is certainly a game that excites us as a club,” he said.
“It is an opportunity that a lot of Super League clubs don’t get.
“Off the back of the success the team has had these last few years, it is an opportunity that they not only deserve but one that they have earned.”