The Toronto Wolfpack have a new coach in Brian McDermott and a new marquee back in Ricky Leutele among a half-dozen reinforcements.
But the goal for the transatlantic rugby league team remains the same – earn promotion to the Super League. The Wolfpack kick off their third season on Sunday when they play at York City Knights in the second-tier Betfred Championship.
While the club has made changes on and of the field, the memory of Toronto’s 4-2 loss to London Broncos last October in a promotion showdown dubbed the Million Pound Game still hurts.
“A punch in the stomach for many of us,” said Brian Noble, a decorated former player and coach who serves as Toronto’s director of rugby. “But we’ve got our wind back now and we’re looking forward to this year.”
Toronto’s hopes died on a gloomy 14 C afternoon before a Wolfpack-record crowd of 9,266 at Lamport Stadium.
“Depressing is too hard a word,” Noble said. “We lost a game of football at the end of the day and life’s more important than that. But everybody was pushing really really hard to get us over the line and show Canada and North America the Super League this year.
“But it wasn’t to be. You can’t kick stones or cans around the car park, you’ve got to get on with it and try to improve.”
A missed payroll in December made for a somewhat messy off-season. But majority owner David Argyle says the payroll was only delayed, with the original ownership group stepping in. And Argyle says short-term pain has led to long-term gain with the club strengthened by a new $10-million investment.
McDermott, a hard-nosed former royal marine, should add steel and savvy to the Wolfpack.
“He demands a lot from his players,” said Noble, who played with and then coached McDermott at Bradford.
McDermott, who takes over the Wolfpack helm from Paul Rowley, also has knowledge of the North America market by virtue of a stint as U.S. national team coach.
In announcing Rowley’s departure last November, the Wolfpack said the decision was mutual. But McDermott’s availability – and ability to seal the deal – no doubt played a huge part.
“He knows what to do and if you look at his history of playoff football, it’s pretty unsurpassed really,” Noble said.
Still Rowley, a former England hooker, did everything but get the team into the Super League. He helped create the club from nothing, assembling a squad that topped England’s third-tier League 1 in 2017 and the Championship in 2018.
His record at the Wolfpack helm was a glittering 53-7-3.
But McDermott’s résumé is even more impressive. In eight seasons as coach of Leeds Rhinos, the former England and Great Britain international won four Grand Finals, two Challenge Cups, a League Leaders’ Shield and a World Club Challenge.
The 48-year-old McDermott was fired in July after the injury-ravaged Rhinos lost their club-record seventh straight Super League game.
Leutele will add star power in the backline. He scored 30 tries in 128 appearances for the Cronulla Sharks in Australia, helping them to the NRL championship in 2016.
“He certainly is the real deal,” Noble said. “He’s going to take some stopping this year. He’s not the biggest of men – he’s probably about [five-foot-10, five-foot-11] – but unbelievable footwork. … He’s a franchise signing for sure. The people in Toronto will love him.”
The Australian-born Samoan centre played a key role in Cronulla’s 14-12 win over the Melbourne Storm in the 2016 NRL Grand Final before 83,625 spectators at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium. Leutele became part of club lore when he made a game-saving tackle on Marika Koroibete in the dying seconds.
The 28-year-old Leutele joins Australian forward Darcy Lussick as the Wolfpack’s marquee players. Similar to the designated player in Major League Soccer, only a portion of a marquee player’s salary (£150,000, $256,765) counts against a club’s salary cap (£2-million, $3.4 million).
Other Wolfpack newcomers are former England and St. Helens loose forward Jon Wilkin, halfback Joe Mellor and second-rower Tom Olbison from relegated Widnes, Warrington second-rower Bodene Thompson and Castleford prop Gadwin Springer, a French international.
The 35-year-old Wilkin made more than 400 appearances for St. Helens between 2002 and 2018. The 30-year-old New Zealand-born Thompson played in the NRL for the Gold Coast Titans, West Tigers and New Zealand Warriors before coming to England where he played in last year’s grand final for Warrington.
Gone are Richard Whiting, Cory Paterson, Jack Bussey, Sam Hopkins, Jack Buchanan, Mason Caton-Brown and Canadian Quinn Ngawati.
The promotion-relegation format has changed from last season, when the top four team in the Championship and bottom four Super League sides took part in the Super Eight Qualifiers.
The top three teams – Super League sides Salford, Leeds and Hull Kingston Rovers – retained their spots in the top tier at the end of the playoff round with No. 4 taking on No. 5 to see who joined them.
The Wolfpack, who went 5-2-0 in the playoff round, missed out on automatic qualification on points difference and landed in the Million Pound Game.
This season, the top five Championship teams will play off to decide one lone promotion spot.
Once again Toronto faces a lopsided schedule, opening the season with 11 straight road games before the April 28 home opener at Lamport Stadium. Ten of the last 16 regular-season games are in Toronto.
Toronto, which topped the Championship last year with a 20-2-1 record, will not take part in the Challenge Cup knockout tournament this season.
Off the field, the Wolfpack look to consolidate their home attendance by turning numbers in the stand into tickets sold. Crowds have been good in the past but plenty of tickets have been given away.