Toronto, Canada seems a far cry away from the mining town of Castleford or the pie-haven of Wigan. Its population is over 2.7 million and, in fact, it is the most populous city in Canada. In the 2011 Census, Castleford had a mere 40,000 inhabitants and Wigan just under 100,000. The contrast between the Canadian city to the Yorkshire and Lancashire towns could not be starker. Yet, in terms of rugby league, Toronto, and Castleford and Wigan, are very much similar.
Toronto is a major hub of all other sports imaginable: ice hockey, baseball, basketball, American football and even ‘soccer’ are all widely followed in the fantastic city. One would, therefore, have expected that when a rugby league team came into existence, the “Wolfpack” was brought into operation as a club in 2016, they would follow the same pattern as other rugby league experiments.
Paris St Germain, for example, competed in the inaugural Super League season in 1996 and then again in 1997, but at the end of the latter, following financial difficulties, the club was dissolved. More recent attempts to spread the game resulted in Celtic Crusaders taking a Super League place for three years, until, they also entered administration and eventually liquidation at the end of the 2011 season.
Toronto, on the other hand, was a completely different entity. The fact that they are the first Canadian team to play in the Rugby Football League system, the first fully professional rugby league team in Canada and the world’s first trans-Atlantic rugby league team, is a success in itself. Moreover, rugby league in Canada was not even an entity before 2010 – the previous Canadian Rugby League Federation had folded in 2000 – so, the emergence of the Wolfpack is even more impressive considering how much Canadian Rugby League is still in its infancy.
So, how did it happen? In 2014, a bold move by the Chairman of the national governing body of Canada Rugby League, Eric Perez, at the head of a Canadian consortium based in Toronto, applied to compete in Britain’s first-tier of professional rugby league – the Super League. Perez was, unsurprisingly, denied permission to join Super League directly by the British RFL, and instead sought to build a club up from League One – the third-tier – from where it could be promoted. It took until April 2016 for the consortium to hold a press conference detailing the franchise. From this, it soon became common knowledge that the Wolfpack would play in League One in the 2017 season.
To do this the club needed professional players. Tryouts in five major North American cities – Kingston, Philadelphia, Vancouver, Tampa and Toronto itself saw only three trialists from 18 secure a contract. The backers knew they would have to spend to even compete in the third-tier of British rugby.
The need to buy players made it clear that the Wolfpack had the financial stability that both PSG and the Crusaders could only ever dream of having. Backed by a consortium based in Toronto that includes ten, yes ten businessmen, one of whom is the Australian mining millionaire, David Argyle, players from Super League teams such as Craig Hall (Wakefield Trinity) and James Laithwaite (Warrington Wolves) became part of the Toronto phenomenon.
To be a success, experience was also required for the coaching job. In April 2016, Paul Rowley, the former Leigh Centurions’ boss who had propelled Leigh to a Championship club on the brink of promotion, was chosen to lead the Wolfpack’s march to Super League, whilst legend of the game, Brian Noble, was to become the director of rugby.
Rowley then announced that his assistant manager would be ex-Super League and Ireland international, Simon Finnigan. The right mix of “been there done that” and youthful enthusiasm as well as the impressive roster they began to construct, had turned Toronto from utopian dreamers into a credible rugby league force.
Money, despite the restrictive salary cap, is key in rugby league and the Wolfpack have the game of rugby league at its feet in this sense. Just look at the spending power of Hull FC over the years and how this has sown the seeds for the current success they are enjoying (two Challenge Cup victories in two years). A team riddled with stars such as Gareth Ellis, Albert Kelly and Mahe Fonua does not come cheap and, the Canadian club appeared, and do appear, willing to put their money where their mouths are.
A team and a coaching staff is one thing, but how would the club go about organising a realistic procedure for the season? Well, the club devised all necessary structures to ensure their entry into the British game was feasible. Before the 2017 season started, Perez, the Chairman of the new club, announced plans to play in blocks of four home matches, four away matches, and for the club to cover all expenses of visiting teams throughout the season. The club also ensured that Toronto would have a place on that all-important medium – television. Game TV announced they would broadcast all Toronto Wolfpack matches nationwide in Canada, whilst Premier Sports did so in the UK. The Wolfpack did not just have a team; they now had an attractive brand.
Actions speak louder than words
By late January the time for talking was over; action on the field was the only way to achieve what Perez and his consortium had initially desired – eventual promotion to the elite tier. 22 January saw the Wolfpack play their first professional game against, ironically, Hull FC at the KCOM Stadium. Although defeated 26-20, Toronto had in no way shamed themselves. By early March, Toronto were in England again for their first League One game. A 76-0 annihilation of London Skolars saw the rugby league fraternity sit and up take note. A genuine Canadian rugby league team had not just appeared in the British game, but they had stamped their authority all over it.
Perez and his consortium were not stupid; they knew that Canada was an attractive market due to it having the largest following of rugby league outside of Britain, Australia, France and New Zealand. The motto “build it and they will come” has a great deal of resonance here. On 6 May 2017, Toronto cast aside Oxford in a 62-12 drubbing in its first home game. The Wolfpack’s home ground Lamport Stadium – of which they hold a three-year lease – amassed a crowd of 6,281 fans to watch this historic moment.
This number was not just a one-off; the club have regularly drawn in such a number throughout the course of this season. Compare this with the (Celtic) Crusaders whose average attendance in the 2010 Super League was just over 4,600 and one can witness how, even though they are in the third-tier, Toronto is an ideal home for a rugby league team. The carnival atmosphere the Toronto fans produce at home and their luxury treatment they offer to other teams and fans is second to none in the rugby league world.
And, the Wolfpack-hype is not just evident in Toronto either; when the Canadian outfit rocked into York’s Bootham Crescent in late July, over 2,500 fans were in attendance. Wherever the Wolfpack go they create excitement, isn’t this what rugby league needs? The game seems stagnant at the moment, indeed, the revelation that RFL Chief Executive, Nigel Wood, was reportedly earning over £300,000, left a bitter taste in rugby league’s fans mouths. What the game needs is something new, sustainable and thrilling. Toronto’s explosive emergence onto the scene ticks all three boxes.