WHEN St Helens and Sydney Roosters step out onto the Langtree Park pitch for the first game of the 2016 World Club Series, it will mark nearly 40 years since the historic first meeting between the top teams from England and Australia.
Back in the summer of 1976, the all-conquering Saints side which had carried off the Premiership, Challenge Cup and BBC Two Floodlit Trophy the previous season headed Down Under for a three-match tour.
The tour included matches against a Queensland Rugby League select XIII and New Zealand side Auckland, but sandwiched in-between was a showdown at the Sydney Cricket Ground with the pre-eminent New South Wales Rugby Football League team of the day, Eastern Suburbs.
Coached by “Super Coach” Jack Gibson and skippered by no-nonsense prop and all-time great Artie Beetson, Easts – who became the Roosters in 1995 – had won the NSWRFL Grand Final in 1974 and 1975.
Nevertheless, St Helens were in confident mood having followed their 1975 Rugby League Championship triumph with a haul of three trophies.
“If we hit the form in Australia that we showed in the last month of the English season we have nothing to fear,” St Helens coach Eric Ashton told the Sydney Morning Herald.
“There is a good deal at stake, as this trip could be the start of many inter-club visits.”
Sadly, the hope of repeated trips to Australia by English club sides did not transpire. St Helens lost all three matches on tour, with the main clash against Easts seeing them go down 25-2 in front of 26,856 fans at the SCG.
Tries from Russell Fairfax – who came in at the last minute for Greg Townsend at full-back – Kevin Stevens, Royce Ayliffe, Ian Schubert and Townsend off the replacements bench, plus five goals from John Brass sealed a comfortable win.
The Saints’ only points came from a Geoff Pimblett goal, although the tour was still heralded as a success.
“I’m proud of the work our committee did to make the St Helens match a successful promotion for rugby league in general,” Easts manager Ron Jones told the Morning Herald.
However, it would be 11 years before another Anglo-Australian club meeting.
THE 1987 match between Wigan and Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles at Central Park has entered history as one of the most brutal encounters between the respective English and Australian champions.
David Stephenson kicked the Cherry and Whites to a famous 8-2 victory in front of an official crowd of 36,895, although anecdotal evidence suggests there were closer to 50,000 crammed onto the terraces of the venue.
However, it perhaps more some of the bruising clashes all over the field which the game is better remembered for.
A brawl erupted after Dale Shearer was lifted in a tackle and then punched Brian Case, Paul Vautin was bundled across the touchline and over a fence by a group of Wigan defenders, while Joe Lydon appeared to be kicked in the head and Rob Gibbs was sent off for taking out Lydon after the centre had attempted a drop goal.
But the real legacy of this match was it led to regular encounters between the top sides from the two nations – generally every two years until 1994, with the exception of back-to-back World Club Challenge matches in 1991 and 1992.
The Super League War saw the Anglo-Australian club matches go into abeyance until the ambitious but bloated disaster that was the 1997 tournament involving all of the clubs from Super League Australia and Super League Europe.
Beset by poor attendances and lopsided encounters, it proved particularly chastening for the European teams, which was underlined by Bradford Bulls qualifying for the knock-out stages despite losing all six matches by a combined score of 228-82.
THE World Club Challenge returned as the champion-versus-champion format in 2000, lasting for 14 years and, aside from the 2014 encounter in Sydney between the Roosters and St Helens, being held in England early on in the Super League season.
Frequently dismissed as little more than glorified trial matches by some in Australia, Super League sides dominated the first eight years of these clashes, but the NRL sides won five of the six games since 2009.
Last year saw the expanded World Club Series launched, featuring three of the top teams from each nation going head-to-head.
Once again, the NRL sides proved too good for their Super League counterparts, with St George Illawara Dragons, Brisbane Broncos and South Sydney Rabbitohs seeing off Warrington Wolves, Wigan Warriors and St Helens respectively.
St Helens and Wigan are back to represent Super League again this season, along with Leeds Rhinos facing NRL champions North Queensland Cowboys in the climax of the series on Sunday.
Super League general manager Blake Solly has already talked of expanding the series further, including playing games as far afield as the USA, Middle East and the Far East.
Even the Australians are starting to view these as more than just trial games. But for now, the focus is simply on the upcoming matches and claiming the bragging rights of being the best club sides in the world.
Just ask Wigan coach Shane Wane, man of the match in that infamous 1987 clash, what it means.
“Every time I go shopping on the market, people still want to talk about it – and it’s almost 30 years ago now,” Wane told The Independent ahead of last year’s matches.
“I want the present players to have a bit of that.”