Blake Wallace has nothing but good memories of his time with the Wolfpack.
The 28-year-old Australian halfback met his wife-to-be in Toronto and scored some milestone tries for the now-defunct transatlantic rugby league team.
Ironically he and former Wolfpack teammates Ryan Brierley, Joe Mellor, Matty Russell and Adam Sidlow now play for Leigh Centurions, the team that replaced Toronto in England’s Super League.
“We’ve got a few familiar faces which has made the transition a bit easier,” said Wallace, who signed with Leigh last September. “It’s good being back with those boys. Along with the other boys that were already there, they’ve made me feel really welcome. I’m looking forward to having a good year with them.”
The Centurions kick off their season Friday against the Wigan Warriors. It’s the nightcap of a doubleheader at Emerald Headingley Stadium in Leeds that kicks off with the defending champion St. Helens Saints facing Salford.
“I think we’ll be good, mate,” Wallace said of Leigh. “We’ve had a really good pre-season. We’ve got a really good squad. So we’re not going to be there just to fill out the numbers, that’s for sure. We’re there to win.”
Wallace and wife Kelley now make their home in Orrell, a suburb of Wigan.
Leigh was the unanimous choice in December among the six teams applying from the second-tier Betfred Championship to take the spot vacated by the financially troubled Wolfpack.
Leigh, which was relegated from the Super League in 2005 and 2017, beat out the Bradford Bulls, Featherstone Rovers, London Broncos, York City Knights and France’s Toulouse Olympique to become the 12th team in Super League.
Leigh submitted a 430-page application that team owner Derek Beaumont called “absolutely bulletproof.”
Toronto stood down last July, saying it could not afford to play out the remainder of the pandemic-affected season. The club’s bid for reinstatement for 2021 under new ownership was rejected in November.
Toronto, which began life in the third tier of English rugby league in 2017, was 0-6-0 in its debut Super League campaign when the pandemic hit.
“it was a bit of a roller-coaster, I guess. It was up and down,” Wallace said of 2020. “There was just a lot of uncertainty. As they say, it could always be worse. I was just grateful that as tough as it got, I was able to sort something out and get a deal elsewhere.
“Things are looking up now.”
With the Wolfpack on hiatus in England, Wallace returned to Canada last April. At the time, he thought the break might only last four to six weeks but, as the pandemic worsened, he ended up staying until early December when he returned to England to join Leigh.
On the plus side, he got to spend time with Kelley and her family in suburban Toronto. But like other Wolfpack employees, Wallace wasn’t getting paid due to the club’s financial problems.
“It was pretty rough. I went through all my savings " he said. “It was a difficult time, mate. I’m glad to be on the other side of it now.”
Negotiations continue about getting the players some back pay. “It’s looking positive,” said Wallace.
He says he has no bad memories of his time with the Wolfpack, although the ending was “obviously disappointing.”
“I did love the city and I loved being a part of that team,” he said. “There was a bit of loyalty there because they gave me my opportunity to come over and play professional footie. I loved it there. The fans, they were amazing.
“I’m just disappointed for the people of Toronto that they don’t have any rugby league they can go watch any more. It’s a shame because I feel like had the concept stuck around, I feel like it was only going to get bigger and better.”
Wallace is part of Wolfpack history.
He scored the franchise’s first try in a 26-20 loss to Hull FC in a January 2017 friendly. And with Toronto trailing 6-4 in the October 2019 Million Pound Game, he scored the try that put the Wolfpack ahead of Featherstone. Toronto went on to win 24-6, securing promotion to the top tier.
While the 2020 season was short, Wallace got to spend time with Sonny Bill Williams, the former All Blacks star who joined the Wolfpack ahead of last season.
“He was a legend, a guy that I had watched my whole life growing up basically,” said Wallace. “He changed the way the game was played. To be sitting across him in the dressing sheds or getting a ride home from training with him, I was in shock really. It was crazy.
“A guy with that kind of profile. He was just a real genuine bloke. I got along with him really well.”
A native of Dapto, some 100 kilometres southwest of Sydney, Wallace’s introduction to the Wolfpack came through former rugby league player Shane Millard. Wallace, a plumber by trade, worked for Millard for several years.
Wallace had been playing for the Illawarra Cutters, the feeder club for the St. George Illawarra Dragons.
During his time in England, Millard had been coached by Brian Noble, who became the Wolfpack’s director of rugby, and played with Simon Finnigan, a Wolfpack assistant coach.
Millard put in a good word for Wallace, who sent the Wolfpack brain trust some video footage of him in action. After earning an invitation to the club’s inaugural camp, Wallace moved to England in November 2016.
He went on to score 48 tries in 57 games, helping Toronto rise up the ranks from its start in England’s third tier.
Toronto and Leigh have ties. Paul Rowley, the Wolfpack’s first coach, played and coached at Leigh and brought in many ex-Centurions.
Former Leigh players to have worn Wolfpack colours include Bob Beswick, Andrew Dixon, Jake Emmitt, Adam Higson, Sam Hopkins, Liam Kay, James Laithwaite, Cory Paterson, Jonny Pownall, Nick Rawsthorne, Richard Whiting and Greg Worthington.
A look at where the 2020 Wolfpack players are playing this season:
Betfred Super League
Castleford: Gareth O’Brien.
Huddersfield: James Cunningham, Ricky Leutele.
Leeds: Bodene Thompson.
Leigh: Joe Mellor, Matty Russell, Adam Sidlow, Blake Wallace.
Salford: Andy Ackers, Darcy Lussick, Kallum Watkins.
Wakefield Trinity: Liam Kay.
Wigan: Brad Singleton.
Halifax Panthers: Greg Worthington, Gadwin Springer.
Toulouse Olympique: Anthony Mullally.
Palau XIII Broncos: Hakim Miloudi.
AS Carcassonne: Anthony Mullally.