The Canadians started their assault on European rugby league this week with a thumping away win at London Skolars. The 76-0 result is unlikely to be Toronto’s last big victory of the season because the Wolfpack are starting their odyssey in the third tier of the Rugby Football League (League 1). That they have chosen to build from below, rather than pushing to be parachuted in higher up, is to the immense credit of their wealthy and committed backers.
There is no doubt, though, that Toronto’s aim is to break into the top flight Super League as quickly as possible. The new club is led by a top-notch coaching team of emerging talent Paul Rowley and ex-Great Britain boss Brian Noble. It has put together a formidable squad featuring stars such as the legendary, larger than life Tongan wrecking ball Fuifui Moimoi.
The off-field driving force is Founder and CEO, Eric Perez. The Torontonian Perez fell in love with rugby league whilst working in the UK, instantly recognising it as the “most Canadian sport not yet played at a high level in Canada” and vowing to correct that anomaly. Perez has dedicated several years of his life to bringing his vision to fruition. As he says, the game features an abundance of everything Canadian fans most love in a sport, “speed, finesse, hard-hitting, a never-say-die attitude and a little fighting too - which us Canadians don’t mind”!
The early signs are that Perez’s optimism is well-judged. Ticket sales in Toronto are buoyant, club merchandise is becoming a cult fashion and an exclusive TV deal is in place to cover all the Wolfpack’s games. The latter is an important part of the plan to keep interest high. This is because Toronto are overcoming the logistical challenges of being transatlantic pioneers by playing their away fixtures in roughly four week blocks across the ocean in the UK. The club are also generously funding the travel and accommodation expenses of their opponents when they visit Canada.
The arrival of Toronto is in many ways typical of rugby league at its best. Boldness has been part of the sport’s DNA since its birth following rugby’s split into two codes back in 1895. The split came about because the clubs that became rugby league wanted to compensate working class players fairly for the wages they lost from their day jobs by taking time off to play. Ever since then, the game has developed a culture of innovation designed to make it more appealing to a paying audience. This ranges from the 1906 reduction to 13-a-side to the early adoption of video refereeing technology and regular rule changes to speed up the spectacle and reward attacking skills.
Whilst never completely immune from the ills of the world, rugby league’s roots in a divorce from society’s elites have led it to develop a long tradition of inclusivity that will make the famously egalitarian Canadians feel right at home.
French sides Toulouse Olympique and Catalans Dragons are already integrated into the British league. The game has the astonishing record of having this country’s first black coaches of a major professional sports club (Roy Francis, Hull FC 1955-59) and national team (Ellery Hanley, 1994), first black international captain (Clive Sullivan, who lifted the World Cup in 1972) and first Briton of Asian origin to play rugby for England (Ikram Butt, 1995). Rugby League was also the first sport to work together with the leading campaign group Stonewall on tackling homophobia and, for example, Australian international star Ian Roberts’ “coming out” was widely embraced way back in 1995.
After all that, welcoming the world’s first transatlantic sports team into the European rugby league fold seems like a logical step. Will the Toronto Wolfpack succeed and eventually become the Super League champions? As they say in Canada - why not, eh?