Ashton Sims is often compared to Thor, and as the affable, long-haired, broad-shouldered Australian rugby league star strolls into a Toronto coffee shop, it’s easy to see why. The towering Aussie settles onto a leather sofa next to another brawny rugby lad, Scottish national Matty Russell. They’re built exactly as you’d expect of international-calibre players in the fast, bone-crushing sport of rugby league: muscled, formidable, intimidating. Both are recent big-name signings of the expansion Toronto Wolfpack, a club of pro athletes quite unlike any this city has ever called its own.
Sims tells of growing up on the coast of New South Wales, playing rugby and cricket with his brothers and sisters in the yard before all five scattered across the globe competing in elite rugby leagues. The gregarious 6-foot-4, 244-pounder is known for his explosive carries and punishing physicality, his tattoos and his zeal for heavy metal. He’s played in Australia’s National Rugby League, in Super League and in a Rugby League World Cup with his mother’s native Fiji.
Russell, a strapping 5-foot-9, 196-pound winger from southwest Scotland, moved to northwest England as a kid and got swept up in the fervour for the storied local rugby-league club, the Wigan Warriors. He would become a young gun at Wigan Athletic Academy, star in Super League and suit up for Scotland in the World Cup. Oh, and he had his teeth knocked out three times in six months.
The coffee shop is a short stroll from the residence at George Brown College, where the team is living for the next couple of months. Every man on this Wolfpack squad – comprising mostly Brits and Aussies – has left a rugby-league heartland to come play for the first transatlantic professional sports franchise. They were lured to Canada by adventure or friendship, to reinvent their careers or to blaze a trail in North America, what they see as a sports-crazed continent that could be the next frontier for rugby league.
“I’d never been to Canada before now,” Russell says. “But I have ESPN and I watch a lot of different contact sport, and I know what’s attractive to watch. Watching the NFL, I get a bit bored with all the breaks. When people see rugby league, they often say, ‘I can’t believe you guys don’t wear pads.’ I think rugby league could be massive with fans in North America.”
“Some rugby-league purists might not like it, but we’re trying to grow the sport we love,” says 33-year-old Sims, who also saw coming to Toronto as a unique cultural experience for his wife and four kids.
Last year, in their debut season, the Wolfpack began in the bottom-tier league governed by the Rugby Football League (RFL), Kingstone Press League 1. The team drew good crowds (albeit often by giving away some free tickets), trounced British teams full of semi-pros with day jobs, suffered just one loss, won a title and earned automatic promotion to the Betfred Championship tier, the second tier. Now this ambitious startup is shooting for another promotion, this time to the top tier, Super League. Adding talents such as Sims, Russell and several other big names for year two was part of the plan to fortify Toronto’s roster against stiffer competition in this year’s Championship.
Due to Canada’s long, cold winter and the resurfacing of the field at their Toronto home, 10,000-seat Lamport Stadium, the Wolfpack have been at their Manchester training base until now and played the first half of their fixtures in Britain, save for one match at much smaller Fletcher’s Fields in Markham, Ont. They’re beginning June in Canada, sitting at first in their league and kicking off an eight-game home stand in finally warm Toronto.
Days later, the Wolfpack make their much-anticipated entrance to open-air Lamport Stadium on a hot and sunny Saturday afternoon. As the players wrap their arms around one another for O Canada and God Save the Queen, thousands of fans are still stuck outside in long queues that snake around the aging building.
The crowd has been snagging free Wolfpack T-shirts and vuvuzela horns out front while a brass band plays and a group of die-hard supporters with drums, flags and black smoke canisters make their way inside. Once the announced crowd of 7,384 filters through the tiny cement concourses and up into the concrete-bench stands – on tickets as low as $25 for adults and $12.50 for kids – the place awakens.
Many are packed into a craft-beer garden in the north end zone, while others gather for food and table tennis matches in the east end, beneath the old-school digital scoreboard. It’s a refreshing departure from the glitz and deafening noise of most Toronto sporting events. There are no video boards or in-stadium hosts hollering into microphones. The venue is so intimate, you can hear the bodies colliding at high speed and the grunts of competitors as they super-man over the goal line for a try. Fans are welcome to belly up to the end-zone barriers, little more than an arm’s length from the howling, jubilant players as they bear hug their teammates after a score.
On this day, the Wolfpack treat the crowd to a steady stream of tries in a 32-12 win over the London Broncos for their 12th straight victory in league play, much to the chagrin of the small pockets of Broncos fans who have travelled from England or surfaced from within Toronto. Two Wolfpack tries come from new acquisition Cory Patterson, a bald, tattooed, 30-year-old, 6-foot-5 back-row forward from Australia who has also worked as an actor and boxer and has tried out for a couple of NFL teams as a kicker.
“It’s a weird setup – they’re right on top of you,” says Patterson of his first game at Lamport. “It’s a great experience. They’re so passionate. I had local people tweeting at me this week, saying, ‘We don’t really know the rules and what’s going on, but we love it.’”
Rugby league is a different code of game than the rugby union brand most commonly played in Canada and overseen by its national and provincial bodies. Rugby league originated in Northern England and employs a fast, physical style with 13 a side and fewer scrums.
Sims starts the game, but the Toronto crowd sees the Australian on the field for just a few minutes before he suffers a calf injury that will sideline him for a few weeks. Keeping the Wolfpack’s perfect league record alive becomes more challenging without him in the lineup.
Victory isn’t in doubt on this day, however. The last Wolfpack try comes from English-born scrum half Ryan Brierley, a Super League-experienced player back for a second year in Toronto. Brierley then kicks the conversion between the posts, and – unavoidably at small Lamport – it sails amusingly right into the parking lot brimming with vehicles.
Within minutes of the match-over handshake, easygoing Brierley is reaching over barriers to shake hands with fans and sign autographs. It’s not the quick, half-hearted sort of fan interaction you’ve seen from some pro athletes as they dash out the tunnels. The Wolfpack players do a loop of the stadium, casually chatting with everyone from rugby-loving British expats to eager kids and groups of selfie-seeking women, thanking – yes, thanking – people for coming.
“It’s a culture thing. We go around and thank the fans for their support. And at first, I’m not sure they understood what we were doing,” Brierley says. “I went to a Raptors game in Toronto, and after, the players just walked off so quickly and it seemed bizarre to me. The fans paid their hard-earned wages to come. Why wouldn’t you show you appreciate them? It’s the way we were brought up back home – win, lose or draw, we go around and thank the fans.”
It’s also poles apart from what players experience at matches in Britain, where they often take abuse as they make the rounds.
“It’s completely different here. You’ve got 7,500 fans cheering and supporting as opposed to 7,500 fans hammering you in the negative. It’s a different vibe here, a positive vibe,” says Wolfpack head coach Paul Rowley, whose résumé includes Championship titles with the Leigh Centurions and playing stints internationally for England and in the Super League. “There’s obviously a little lack of understanding for the core rules here, so the chants for different penalties and stuff doesn’t come along with it as it does in England. It’s more of an organic noise than a direct chanting – which can be personal at times. It’s a good noise.”
Afterward, down in the bowels of Lamport, the Wolfpack locker room shakes with the rumble of players jumping and hollering out the victory song they wrote themselves for the franchise.
After addressing a handful of local reporters, Rowley walks out of the stadium, totally unidentified by lingering fans still learning the club’s personalities. He hops into a Volkswagen parked on the street and is soon joined by more big RFL figures from Britain, who make up the backbone of this Toronto venture: assistant coach Simon Finnagan and director of rugby Brian Noble, who doubles as the colour analyst on TV broadcasts.
No one wants to look too far ahead, but the Wolfpack is in a promising position. At the end of the regular season, the top four finishers in the Championship face the bottom four from Super League in a round-robin playoff called the Super 8s (a format the league plans to change in 2019). The best four finishers there make Super League next season. That quest could see the Wolfpack hosting playoff games against Super League sides in Toronto this August and September.
It’s an odd journey that has sped along at a breakneck pace since Toronto-born Wolfpack founder and chief executive Eric Perez first watched rugby league on TV, while working in advertising in England, and thought Canadians would love this hard-hitting sport. He assembled a consortium of businessmen to fund it – including Australian mining millionaire David Argyle – and was granted an RFL franchise at the bottom level. He then enlisted Noble and Rowley, who were intrigued by the chance to build a club from scratch.
A condition of their entry was that the Wolfpack pay for the travel of opposing teams to and from Toronto – a hefty financial burden they still shoulder, with help from sponsor Air Transat.
The team’s business office is thinking ahead, though, preparing for what Super League could mean. Promotion next year would give the Wolfpack access to a share of the broadcast deal the league has with Sky Sports in Britain. The club believes it would make Toronto a popular travel destination for Super League fans. It also sees a bigger home stadium down the road and is interested in helping develop Lamport.
“Hockey dominates this market, but there is a really strong undercurrent of rugby heritage in Canada. The sport of rugby league is very attractive and has some synergies with the CFL and NFL, and it’s a great product,” says Scott Lidbury, the Wolfpack’s Australian-born general commercial manager. “Rugby league is traditionally a very working-class sport from its heartland in the North of England and Australia. We respect the heritage of the game, which is more than 100 years old, but we have an opportunity in Toronto to create a whole new interpretation of it.”
The club is trying to tap into rugby enthusiasm in the area, working with Rugby Ontario, which reported 11,367 registered rugby union participants in 2017 (including coaches, referees and players of all ages). They co-operated on a corporate flag rugby event in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square the day before the home opener, and together they hope to develop a centre for rugby excellence in the province.
Still relatively undiscovered, the team struggles for media attention and can’t compete with the marketing power of other Toronto sports clubs. It has found some clever ways to get noticed by Torontonians, especially in the heart of youthful Liberty Village. Players have gotten on stage at the Second City, popped up a booth at a women’s craft-beer festival, filmed their own behind-the-scenes show, bared their muscles for a team calendar and invited fans (and visiting fans) to a pub night.
The Wolfpack will be back at Lamport Stadium each Saturday for the next seven weeks, trying to remain atop the Betfred Championship League table and continue their climb to the summit.
If RFL can thrive in Toronto, the club has visions of more teams in North America.
“There’s the rumour of New York getting a team going, and we’ve proved so far here that expansion can work,” says Liam Kay, an Irish international star winger who was the first player signed to the Wolfpack last year. “For me, the main thing is getting the kids playing in Canada, and the potential for that is massive. If rugby league could take off in North America, I think it could be as big as the NFL eventually. That’s the vision I have – that’s why I signed up for this.”