Penrith Panthers want ‘redemption’ in World Club Challenge against Wigan

By Sports Desk February 23, 2024

Sold-out signs and the sight of the world’s best player gunning for revenge are set to make it a World Club Challenge to remember when Wigan pit their wits against triple NRL defending champions Penrith Panthers at the DW Stadium on Saturday.

The Warriors will join the Sydney Roosters as five-time winners of the prestigious, if inconsistently contested, pinnacle of the global club game if they deal a further blow to a side still smarting from their golden-point defeat to St Helens a year ago.

For all their acclaim as one of the greatest sides to grace Australia’s high-profile and lucrative NRL, Penrith are still yet to lift the accolade, having lost all three of their previous finals, including to Wigan in 1991, and it is something their talismanic half-back Nathan Cleary is desperate to put right.

“Losing to Saints last year still hurts, but we’re lucky enough to get the chance of redemption,” said Cleary, who led Australia to World Cup glory on his last visit to the UK in 2022.

“As a club we haven’t won the World Club Challenge so that’s another thing we want to do, get the final trophy in the cabinet.

“I have fond memories of being over here and winning the World Cup, and although I’m back with a different team there’s the same desire and drive. It’s a great challenge but also a great opportunity and the end goal would be special.”

In contrast Wigan boast a stirring history in the competition, their notoriously brutal initial win over Manly at Central Park in 1987, starring the likes of Ellery Hanley, Joe Lydon and Henderson Gill, followed by subsequent triumphs in 1991, 1994 and 2017.

In centre Adam Keighran, whom they signed from Catalans at the end of last year’s Grand Final-winning campaign, they also possess something of an inside-track on what makes their rivals tick, the 26-year-old having spent two years with Penrith’s New South Wales Cup side from 2018.

Keighran told the PA news agency: “I think there are similarities between both clubs. Penrith are a bit isolated out there in the west and they form a very tight-knit group involving the whole community, and I’ve noticed the same thing here.

“I know last year was a very disappointing loss for them and I think it’s something they’re very keen to change. I don’t think their perception of the English game has changed but they’ll be more hungry than they were last year to set things straight.”

After a sporadic start, the World Club Challenge has been played every year, barring Covid, since 2000, although it was not until 2014, when Wigan were swept aside by Sydney Roosters, that the event in its modern iteration was staged outside the UK.

The perceived reluctance of English teams to travel drew scorn from some in Australia who suggested clubs used the event as little more than pre-season preparation, but the nature and magnitude of Saints’ win last year appears to have contributed to a significant shift-change.

While the old days of well over 30,000 packing into the old Central Park to watch the win over Manly have long gone, the sold-out signs at the DW Stadium have been stuck up since January which bears testament to the enthusiasm for a fixture that could steer Wigan to the summit for a fifth time.

“There has been a real anticipation and buzz around the town for months now,” said Wigan captain Liam Farrell, who also played in his side’s defeat to the Roosters at the DW Stadium in 2019.

“The club has got a strong history in the World Club Challenge, so if we can play our small part in that and get a win on Saturday, that would be great for us to be a little piece of that special history.”

Wigan will draft academy product Harvie Hill into their line-up in place of new signing Luke Thompson, who is absent having failed a head injury assessment in the wake of their opening Super League win over Castleford.

Penrith head coach Ivan Cleary also turns to youth, with 20-year-old Jack Cole set to partner Nathan Cleary in the halves in the absence of the injured Jarome Luai.

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