FLASHBACK FRIDAY: WARRIORS IN THE ’97 WORLD CLUB CHALLENGE

As the Melbourne Storm and Leeds Rhinos prepare to square off in the World Club Challenge tonight – with ex-Warriors Ryan Hoffman and Joel Moon set to feature – TWL’s inaugural Flashback Friday revisits the Auckland Warriors’ memorable campaign in the expanded 1997 version of the WCC.

The ill-fated tournament was the rebel Super League organisation’s most ambitious venture of its sole season in operation in Australia, pitting the 10 Australian Super League clubs against the European Super League’s 11 clubs. The teams were split into two pools – Pool A contained the top six ranked clubs from each competition, while the remainder made up Pool B – and played in a home and away series scheduled during two four-week breaks in the premiership season.

Lopsided scorelines marred the competition from the outset and crowds rapidly dropped off. European clubs won just eight of the 60 pool matches staged; some of the more embarrassing results included:

• Canberra winger Ken Nagas scoring six of the Raiders’ 13 tries in a 70-6 demolition of Halifax at Bruce Stadium.
• After defeating Canterbury in the opening round, English heavyweight Wigan was thumped 34-0 by Brisbane and 56-22 by Canberra.
• Halifax being humiliated 58-6 by Canterbury and then obliterated 76-0 by the Broncos, who scored 15 tries.
• Lowly Australian side the Adelaide Rams racking up 126 points to just 30 conceded in their three home matches against Salford, Leeds and Oldham.

But few teams’ performances emphasised the disparity between the competitions than the Auckland Warriors. The Warriors were running last in the Australian Super League premiership and had sacked foundation coach John Monie, but the World Club Challenge provided much-needed highlights in a bleak ’97 season.

The Frank Endacott-coached Warriors ventured to England in June for the first leg of the tournament and came away with three wins from three games, downing St Helens 42-14, Bradford 20-16 and Warrington 56-28.

Centre Tea Ropati scored four tries against Warrington, while Matthew Ridge contributed 20 points from a try and eight goals. But that was nothing compared to the pointscoring spree the Warriors inflicted on the three English clubs when they visited New Zealand a month later.

In the two Auckland-hosted matches, Ropati bagged a hattrick and Gene Ngamu racked up 28 points (one try, 12 goals) in a 64-14 demolition of Bradford, before Ngamu scored three tries and Ridge kicked 11 from 12 in a 70-6 massacre at St Helens’ expense. The Warriors overcame Warrington 16-4 in dismal conditions at Christchurch’s Lancaster Park to clinch second spot in Group A.

After the domestic season finished – with the Warriors improving to seventh courtesy of four wins in the last five rounds – Bradford returned for more Mount Smart punishment in the WCC quarter-final. Ridge scored two of Auckland’s 11 tries and landed nine goals for a 26-point haul in a 62-14 slaughter of a Bulls side featuring Kiwis star Robbie Paul at halfback and future Warriors assistant coach Steve McNamara at lock.

The Warriors produced one of the most impressive performances in their short history a week later against Super League premiers Brisbane at ANZ Stadium.

The high-profile clubs produced the finest match of the maligned tournament – and one of most intense contests of the Super League season – despite the paltry 9,686 turnout. Halfback Ben Walker, deputising for Allan Langer, scored two tries for the Broncos to cancel out Warriors winger Lee Oudenryn’s double as the home side turned a 10-all halftime scoreline into a 22-16 victory.

The Broncos cruised to the World Club Challenge crown via a 36-12 win over the Hunter Mariners in front of 10,300 fans at Auckland’s Mount Smart Stadium on October 17.

[YouTube – ngatikaiwaipiro]

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