Toronto Wolfpack take rugby league into a brave new world

AND so, after months of rumours, now we know for certain.
Having already taken in teams from England’s non-heartland areas, Wales and France, rugby league’s “most geographically diverse competition” – a phrase used so often in official communiques that it is amazing The RFL have not trademarked it – will make the bold step of expanding across the Atlantic when Toronto Wolfpack join Kingston Press League One from 2017.
The level of expansion which has been going on at the lower end of the British professional game in recent years has not been seen since clubs sprang up in places such as Mansfield, Chorley, Kent, Carlisle Cardiff and Scarborough in the 1980s and early 1990s.
Of course, as any rugby league historian will tell you, many of those teams disappeared almost as quickly as they were launched, in some cases bouncing around various venues and being unable to establish any kind of foothold.
Small wonder then the reception to what is arguably the most ambitious experiment ever undertaken in club rugby league has been caution tinged with a hint of optimism – not to mention the usual prophecies of failure from the doom-mongers.
The success of the Catalans Dragons and Toulouse Olympique’s return to the professional ranks on these shores has undoubtedly emboldened The RFL in their quest to push the game’s boundaries at the highest level beyond the M62 corridor.
In a financial sense at least, this represents a near-on risk-free move for the governing body as the travelling expenses of all the other clubs in the division will be met by the Canadians for their home games at Toronto’s Lamport Stadium, and no money is being taken out of the sport in this country.
The biggest risk on that side will be from the club itself. Indeed, the Toronto Star last year quoted the initial outlay as in the region of $2million Canadian dollars and cited the exchange rate – $1.86 to £1 at the time of writing – as being problematic for a Canadian company doing business in the UK.
Nevertheless, Wolfpack CEO and chairman of governing body Canada Rugby League, Eric Perez, insists the team has secured the investors and sponsorship to ensure this will not just be a flash in the pan venture. It has been speculated there is even Australian money behind the project.


Lamport Stadium will host Toronto Wolfpack’s home games

Perez has done much to revitalise rugby league in Canada after years of being in a near-dormant state. As eminent historian Tony Collins chronicled last year, the 13-man code’s history in Canada goes back exhibition internationals played there in the 1920s, while the national team appeared at the 2000 Emerging Nations Tournament.
The CRL was formed in 2010 and, with Perez at the helm, has established a small but thriving domestic competition and regularly attracted four-figure crowds to international matches.
Undoubtedly though, the biggest test will come with this venture into the British professional structure.
It is probably worth mentioning Toronto’s Major League Baseball, National Hockey League, National Basketball Association and Major League Soccer teams all ply their trade in competitions featuring mostly teams in another country – albeit neighbours the USA.
And at a time when America’s National Football League – the richest sports league in the planet – has been agonising for some years about how to overcome the various logistical and financial issues associated with installing a potential American football franchise in London, it is amazing to think rugby league is able to go ahead with this plan, especially starting in a division consisting mostly of part-time teams.
The intention is for the Wolfpack to play home and away games in blocks of four, with the team based in Bradford when in the UK and League One teams flying in on Thursday, playing Saturday and returning Sunday for matches in Canada.
With Brian Noble on board as director of rugby and Paul Rowley joining as head coach, the back-room staff has the necessary experience and knowhow to guide a new side.
Building a side from scratch will require tempting a large number of overseas players to take a step into the unknown, along with gradually introducing and getting the homegrown Canadian players up to the required standard.
The final word though, goes to Sky Sports pundit Phil Clarke, whose latest column shows how vehemently in favour of the Wolfpack project he is.
“From time to time we get some enthusiastic people from outside traditional rugby league lands who show an interest in the sport,” wrote Clarke.
“However, we have not been great at helping the good ones and weeding out the bad.
“It strikes me that the people behind this Toronto project need backing, just as the ones in Toulouse do as well.”
Whatever the outcome, it will be fascinating to follow the progress of Toronto Wolfpack. Strap yourselves in, because it is going to be one hell of a ride.


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