Nathan Cleary
After being the NRL grand final winner, Nathan Cleary is out to become a club world champion. Image by James Gourley/AAP PHOTOS
  • rugby league

Cleary out for world-beating ‘redemption’ with Panthers

Ian Chadband February 24, 2024

Nathan Cleary has been the centre of attention in England this week, being welcomed by his hosts as the world’s best rugby league player.

Now the Penrith superstar is determined to show them why he’s been lauded with that accolade as he seeks to annex a second world title in the space of 15 months in the Panthers’ World Club Challenge against Wigan on Saturday (Sunday morning AEDT). 

The revived contest pitting the NRL’s finest against the Super League’s best now has a real edge to it again after St Helens went to Australia last year and beat the Panthers in their own backyard – the first time an English side had won the competition on NRL territory since Wigan beat the Broncos in 1994.

Cleary, the one visitor everyone’s wanted to interview in England this week after his grand final tour de force, has been saying all the right, diplomatic things to his admiring hosts, including an acknowledgement that the top Super League sides might actually be narrowing the gap on their NRL rivals.

But he’s also the one who brought up the ‘R’ buzzword. The Panthers, no question, are after redemption.

“The top three or four Super League teams are great sides with great players, so we look at the challenge of playing in Wigan as an opportunity to do something special,” said Cleary.

“Losing to Saints still hurts, but we’re lucky enough to get the chance of redemption. 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 (at Old Trafford in neighbouring Manchester), 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.”

Bevan French
 Former Eels flyer Bevan French is now the dangerman for Wigan. Image by Dan Himbrechts/AAP PHOTOS 

It’s probably an even bigger deal for Wigan, for so long the standard bearers for British rugby league, who will join the Sydney Roosters as five-time winners of the Challenge if they can win at Wigan’s DW Stadium.

There’s a determination to prove the strength of the English game and Cleary recognises the danger from two former Eels, in particular, who can show what the NRL has been missing.

“Wigan are a great side, and the speed and X-factor obviously comes from Jai [Field] and Bevan [French],” conceded Cleary, referring to the former Parramatta pair who have perhaps been the Super League’s stand-out performers over the past two seasons.

French, indeed, was voted Man of Steel last season as the best player in the European game.

“But they have great strength across the park as well – we’ll need to play well,” added Cleary.

Penrith coach Ivan Cleary has brought in 20-year-old Jack Cole to partner Nathan Cleary in the halves, with Jarome Luai injured.

Taylan May has won the race to take Stephen Crichton’s old spot at centre, after an ACL injury in last year’s World Club Challenge took him off the wing.

“You don’t get invited to this game, you have to earn the right to play in it,” said Cleary.

“The World Club Challenge went quiet for a few years through COVID and what not, but I think it’s back in its rightful place with a sold-out stadium. We’re really looking forward to it.”