Brian Noble might be one of the most fascinating people working in Toronto sports who most Canadians have never heard of. But his name resonates in Britain.
Growing up in a hard-scrabble industrial borough in the north of England, Noble had two choices. Around streets dotted with mills and chimney stacks, he could run with the kids looking for mischief, drugs and petty crime, or he could spend his nights at the local police social club, playing rugby.
There, under the tutelage of policemen in the 1970s in his West Yorkshire hometown of Bradford, the boy learned the sport of rugby league, a version of rugby that had originated in Northern England in 1895 by working-class men such as coal miners and mill workers.
Noble grew up to become a police officer, patrolling streets through civil unrest, riots and drug investigations. He juggled his police shifts with a great pro playing career, mostly with his hometown club, Bradford Northern. He compensated for his lack of size (he’s 5-foot-8) with toughness at the hooker position, earned a shot in Australia’s National Rugby League and captained, and later coached, the British national team. He became a decorated club coach, too, and received a top honour in British sport, appointed a member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire.
The gregarious Englishman known in rugby league circles as Nobby can captivate with stories in vivid colour of the many stops in his journey. But Noble says what he’s doing now at the age of 57 in Toronto might someday rival all of that. He’s the director of rugby for the Toronto Wolfpack, the expansion team whose intriguing story has been widely told. Now in its second season, the club may achieve its goal in the playoffs this fall: promotion to the highest tier in British rugby league, Betfred Super League. For Noble, the motivation goes even further.
He wants to help spur growth beyond rugby league’s niche confines in Northern England, Australia, New Zealand and Southern France. The Wolfpack hopes to be just the first step in blazing a trail in North America, believing that this sports-crazed continent will embrace rugby league, from grass-roots participation right on up to more pro-expansion clubs.
Noble was approached a few years ago by an eclectic group. There was Torontonian Eric Perez, who discovered rugby league on TV while in England and wanted to put a team in Toronto with the help of Australian mining billionaire David Argyle. They were working with one of Noble’s old pals, rugby player turned actor Adam Fogerty, who played the hulking boxer Gorgeous George in the film Snatch.
“We met in a coffee shop in England and they asked me, ‘Do you fancy helping build an expansion team in Canada?’ and I nearly choked on this Cornish pasty I was eating,” Noble said during a lengthy interview inside the Wolfpack’s home, Toronto’s 10,000-seat Lamport Stadium. “I said ‘I wouldn’t know where to start.’ But I’ve got good contacts, I can sell a story and I’m a good planner. So yeah, maybe I could be good at this.”
The long hours and stress of coaching no longer appealed to Noble, but advising for the Wolfpack as a sort of general manager did. It was a rare shot to build something from scratch. He knew many top players, but would have to sell them on living in a cosmopolitan Canadian city and pioneering in North America.
Perez soon hired Paul Rowley, who had just left a job with Leigh Centurions, as head coach. While the teams Noble had coached were tough, grinding ones, Rowley’s teams played an entertaining coast-to-coast style – something Noble thought North American audiences would love.
“That’s what’s fun – he’s a total contradiction to me,” Rowley, 43, said. “His playing style was different from mine, and discussion is good and healthy and two people not always agreeing, it’s like a marriage. I’m strong enough to stick to my guns, but still adaptable to listen to a valued opinion. I can put some of the hardness and winning formulas he’s employed with what I’ve used to win,and the two combined in this era are pretty successful.”
The Wolfpack had to start out last season in the bottom of England’s three-tier system and work to get promoted twice up to top-tier Super League. So Noble and Rowley needed to convince top players to come play down one or two levels with the future in mind. They’ve landed an impressive group of big-name British and Australian players and created a family atmosphere, with players’ kids running around Lamport, playing with water hoses in Toronto’s July heat while their dads practise.
“The reputations of Nobby and Paul are massive, and that’s a huge part of why I signed,” said English halfback Ryan Brierley, who left a Super League club to play in Toronto. “Everyone in rugby league knows how big a figure Brian Noble is and what he’s done in the game. I’ve known Paul a long time and am very close with him and I know how he works. You have to be a certain kind of person to play in this group; you have to be a bit of a weirdo. They recruited carefully. The group is special.”
Noble is a rare coach to have won three Super League Grand Finals. He’s called on a lifetime of experiences to pull his teams together, from being the sole policeman playing on a rugby club full of miners during a contentious miners strike in the 1980s, to coaching Britain to a memorable 2006 upset of powerhouse Australia in Sydney.
On Wolfpack game days, Noble is in the Lamport broadcast booth, working as local TV commentator, a natural spot for him after years of working as pundit on British TV and radio. Much of his audience may never have seen rugby before, or they know the rugby-union version more often played in North America.
“Brian would probably be happy to glad-hand with corporates at the game, but he wants to stand in the booth and explain to a new audience what’s happening and identify the characters they should follow and he’s good at it,” said Phil Caplan, managing editor of Forty20 Magazine, a rugby league publication in Britain. “When the Wolfpack makes it to Super League, a popular team like Wigan or Leeds may draw 2,000 fans over from the U.K., you may need a bigger facility, or a different broadcast partner. If rugby league needs someone to go meet a potential new partner or investor, I wouldn’t send a suit from the office, I’d send Brian Noble. His coaching and playing career speaks for itself, but he has a wider appeal and he knows how to sell the sport.”
The Wolfpack is 17-1-1 this season, with a chance to secure the Betfred Championship League Shield this weekend. The real test comes in August and September though, when the top four teams in Championship and bottom four in Super League play off in a round robin for spots in the 2019 Super League.
“I’ve never been so excited in my life,” Noble said. “We get to take something from a blank piece of paper into the promised land.”
Along the way, the Wolfpack has worked to introduce the sport and its very accessible players to Canadians. It has also held several camps in North America to search for local talent it could develop. The group is outspoken about buzz in rugby circles to get more expansion clubs in cities such as New York or Boston.
“We have to make this work, because we believe this new North American market will help our game and that drives me,” Noble said. “If the legacy is that in 20 years time there are two or three rugby league teams in North America and young kids, women and men are playing this great game here, then we’ve won.”