Backing the Pack

The 2017 Kingston Press League 1 kicked off a few weeks ago, with one notable new addition. Founded in 2016, the Toronto Wolfpack are Canada’s first professional rugby league team. Having been denied the chance to go straight into the Super League, they are starting in the third tier of the RFL’s leagues, but as 12 of their 15 opponents are part-time, they are expected to quickly rise up the ranks and soon be competing for a place in the top tier.

I’ll be the first to admit that my knowledge of rugby league is somewhat lacking. Having lived all my life in Gloucestershire or Wales, I’ve grown up a fan of rugby union, but in recent years I have begun to enjoy watching league and am starting to learn my way in the sport. As I have previously commented on the thought of the NFL introducing a UK-based franchise, I thought it was only fair to give my ten (Canadian) cents on the reverse being done.

 

Toronto clearly have no plans to stay in League 1 long-term. The acquisition of former Great Britain head coach Brian Noble in the Director of Rugby role suggests that they want someone with experience of winning the top competitions (Noble is one of only two coaches to have won 3 super League Grand Finals and has also won 2 Super League Leader’s Shields, 1 Challenge Cup and 3 World Club Challenges).

They have also recruited well for the playing squad, with a number of players with Super League or Championship experience. A large proportion of the squad have signed from Bradford Bulls and Leigh Centurions, most notably former New Zealand and Tonga prop Fuifui Moimoi. They also have players who have been capped for the USA, Canada, Ireland and Wales. Granted these are not ‘top’ teams in international rugby league, but any players with international experience will bring some real quality to the Wolfpack.

I do feel a bit sorry for the teams in the league who have to deal with the step up in quality when playing the Wolfpack, but I feel that for the future of the franchise it was right to put them a few leagues down rather than start them in one of the top 2 tiers. It will never be easy to build up a fan base for a new team in an emerging sport, but for a market like Toronto that is already saturated with professional teams – they have franchises in the MLB, MLS, NHL, NBA and other leagues that I am less familiar with – it is important that the team be successful immediately in order to keep the fans engaged and build up a fan base, especially as their ‘local’ away games still involve a trip across the Atlantic.

 

When I looked at the potential issues of setting up UK-based NFL franchise, I mentioned that the amount of transatlantic travel throughout the season could put them at a disadvantage. I hope the NFL are taking note, as the Wolfpack’s travel plans may hold the answer. The Wolfpack will be playing their home and away matches in blocks of 4 or 5 games. They will also be staying in the UK during these ‘away’ blocks, sharing a training ground with Brighouse Rangers. This will mean that players are less effected by jet lag or other issues relating to regular travel. Having blocks of games will likely also help them keep the fans engaged both in the UK and Canada, as if they enjoy going to a game one week, they will often be able to back that up by going the next few weeks as well. The one potential issue that I see here relates to the team’s involvement in the Challenge Cup. Cup games are allocated specific weeks in which to be played, if the Wolfpack are drawn at home in the middle of their away block – or vice versa – I will be interested to see what impact the extra travel will have on them, as I’m sure they would not want to sacrifice home advantage for a knockout cup game.

Travelling to Canada and back will not be a cheap trip for part-time teams, so it is also really good to see that Toronto’s sponsor Air Transat are providing free travel for their opponents’ playing squad and staff and also subsidised travel for any English fans making the journey. It will be interesting to see if this is something that continues as they move up through the leagues and start to face fully professional opposition. This would be of great expense to the league if they were to do this themselves, so it would not surprise me if this was a huge factor in Toronto’s pitch to join the leagues.

 

Toronto Wolfpack being in the English leagues may be the start of a North American love affair with rugby league. Rugby union is slowly taking off, with much more interest in 7s and a professional league set up in the USA last year. I can imagine that league is a game that Americans and Canadians can get into, as it is arguably more exciting for someone new to the sport to watch than 15-a-side rugby union due to the faster pace and the lack of rucks (and especially reset scrums).

While there are only a few players from the USA or Canada in the current Wolfpack squad, they are running trials to identify players who have not made it in the NFL or the CFL (Canadian Football League). This seems to be working well for the USA rugby union (look at Perry Baker in the 7s) so I’m sure some real talent will be developed by the Wolfpack over the next few years, which will only benefit the USA and Canadian national teams.

Any improvement in the quality of North American rugby league can surely only be a plus for the sport. While union has seen participation increasing right around the world and the top Northern Hemisphere teams catching up with their Southern Hemisphere opponents, there is a huge gulf in the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) World Rankings between the top 3 teams (Australia, New Zealand and England) and the best of the rest (Scotland, Samoa and France). Surely becoming more widespread and even at international level can only benefit the sport, or we could see more players choosing to follow Denny Solomona to union or seeing if they can have more success in the NFL than Jarryd Hayne.

 

It may take us a while to see the full impact that the Wolfpack have on rugby league, but I’m sure that if given the chance it will be a positive one. If nothing else, I’m sure there will be a lot of fans and players using the fixtures list as an excuse to renew their passport and book a trip to Canada! They’ve started the season well, winning their first 2 league games (away from home) and making it through the 3rd round of the Challenge Cup. Next up is their 4th round game against London Broncos on Friday, then 2 more league games in the UK before finally playing their 1st League 1 game in Canada in early May.

Best of luck for the rest of the season Toronto, I’ll be watching with great interest!

 

What do you think of Toronto Wolfpack? Have an opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

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