Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

Members of the Toronto Wolfpack practice on Tuesday.Neil Davidson/The Canadian Press

The Toronto Wolfpack have made it past more than a few obstacles in their climb up the rugby-league ladder.

But the transatlantic team continues to run into roadblocks in developing North American talent because of rugby league’s extensive red tape.

To date, Quinn Ngawati is the only Canadian-born player to see action with the Wolfpack. The 19-year-old from Victoria played in two games last year in the club’s inaugural season in the third tier of English rugby league. He will make his third appearance on Saturday when Toronto (20-1-1) hosts Featherstone Rovers (15-8-0) in the regular-season finale for both clubs in the second-tier Betfred Championship.

The Wolfpack have found themselves in a Catch-22 situation. Because rugby league is not a sport native to North America, finding local talent is difficult enough to start with. Finding a place to refine the raw talent it does discover is even more difficult given rugby league’s complicated roster rules.

Ngawati’s Canadian passport means he is not considered an import or quota player for Toronto. But he is at clubs in England where the Wolfpack looked to place him to further his rugby-league education.

In order to loan Ngawati (pronounced Now-r-tee) to the London Skolars of the third-tier Betfred League 1 this season, they had to get him a British passport (which he is entitled to through his bloodlines) to avoid roster complication for London.

“That’s another bizarre twist in a really bizarre tale,” frustrated Wolfpack coach Paul Rowley said.

And while Toronto is high on Ngawati, calling him a “rough diamond,” they consider him a work in progress.

Rowley says the 6-foot-4, 240-pound Ngawati is getting his shot this weekend because he has earned it in training and because Toronto is resting regular second-rowers Cory Paterson and Andrew Dixon.

“We don’t give first-team shirts out because this isn’t a circus act,” said Rowley, a former England hooker. “We’re here to win games and we’re here to be successful so that the people of Canada learn to love this sport. They’ll learn to love it when it’s played on the highest platform. That’s what we’re endeavouring to do.

“We don’t give shirts out. That’s not the way I work. I earned a shirt and everybody who plays for me will earn a shirt. And this week Quinn’s earned his shirt ... I could have put other people there but I put Quinn there.”

But with Toronto shifting its focus to the so-called Qualifiers series after the regular season — when the bottom four Super League teams face off with the top four Betfred Championship squads to determine four berths in the top tier next season — Ngawati is unlikely to see more action this year.

Rowley says in a perfect world the Canadian should probably be with a Super League academy team to hone his skills.

Toronto has also run into problems with American winger Ryan Burroughs, who went to Australia for a year to develop his rugby-league skills. Because of that, he is considered an import or quota player and thus would count against Toronto’s import spots, which are filled by more experienced overseas players.

Rowley says Burroughs would likely have played 10 to 12 games for Toronto this season had he not run afoul of the roster rules.

“Our commitment to develop Canadian or North American players is massively restricted,” Rowley said. “What other walk of life would put that sort of restrictions on employment? It’s actually a stone-age mindset — because Ryan Burroughs playing for Toronto will not restrict the progression of English youth. That’s what the quota system is there for.”

Ngawati is the first Canadian-born player to play pro rugby league according to Canada Rugby League, the governing body of the sport in Canada.

The Wolfpack roster last year featured Australian-born Canadian internationals Rhys Jacks and Tom Dempsey. Despite the fact both have represented Canada internationally in the sport through their bloodlines, they do not hold Canadian passports and were thus deemed import players. With Toronto beefing up its roster after being promoted to the second tier, they did not make the cut this season.

Interact with The Globe