One year ago, before a packed house at Lamport Stadium on a chilly October afternoon, Toronto Wolfpack players stood devastated as their quest for Super League promotion had fallen excruciatingly short.
The collection of mostly British and Australian rugby stars who uprooted their lives to play for Toronto’s expansion club suffered a shocking 4-2 loss to the London Broncos in the Million Pound Game. The Toronto fans, with a growing fascination for this fast, bone-crushing sport, were quiet and saddened as the Broncos popped champagne to celebrate their upset victory.
The Wolfpack had topped the second-tier Betfred Championship standing all last season, but they could not win that final game. The Broncos earned promotion to the top-tier of England’s rugby league competition that day, not the Wolfpack.
Toronto’s side went back to the drawing board and ground through another season in the second tier. The first and only transatlantic team in rugby league, the Wolfpack rollicked to a 27-1 record this season and now sits once again on the doorstep of promotion to the Super League. On Saturday, Toronto is once again holding the deciding Million Pound Game – so-called, because that is what promotion to the Super League is said to be worth in central funding to its 12 clubs. But this time, the Wolfpack will play against the Featherstone Rovers, a club from the traditional rugby league heartland in Northern England. The Wolfpack will get another chance to push through the door and seize a spot for next season in Super League.
“It would be the ultimate accomplishment to earn promotion for Toronto, and I don’t just mean since I’ve been on this team – I mean in my whole career,” said Australian-born prop Ashton Sims, who has played in Australia’s National Rugby League (NRL), in Super League and in a Rugby League World Cup with his mother’s native Fiji. “It would be right up there at the top of the tree, but it will take a lot of hard work to get it done.”
Saturday’s game will be the last of a 17-year career for 34-year-old Sims, a fan favourite. Some on the team have joked that the imposing 6-foot-4, 244-pound player with long hair, sharp jaw and grizzled facial hair resembles a wolf. The friendly Aussie has been front and centre in the Wolfpack’s efforts to sell this quick-paced brand of rugby to fans in Toronto and blaze a trail in North America, which some consider the next frontier for rugby league.
He joined the Wolfpack last year in its second season. The club made its debut in 2017 in the bottom-tier league governed by the Rugby Football League (RFL), Kingstone Press League 1. After the team easily achieved promotion to the second tier in its first season, Sims was among the high-powered talent added to help earn the next promotion to Super League.
Toronto has grown on Sims as much as the player has grown on the city. His wife and four children have spent two summers with him in Canada. He has enjoyed the concert scene, become a fan of the Blue Jays, Maple Leafs and Raptors, even wading into the jam-packed streets on parade day to celebrate the NBA championship.
“Toronto has embraced us as one of their own. I’m a proud Australian and my mom is Fijian, and I wouldn’t let anyone trash my nationalities, so I feel like I get the people here because that’s how they seem to be in Toronto too,” Sims said. “Rugby league is in its youth here, but I think it can be really special in Toronto in the future.”
The Wolfpack has planted seeds in Toronto, routinely drawing 8,000 to 9,000 people to home games, which almost fills Lamport Stadium, its 54-year-old home in the heart of the city’s Liberty Village neighbourhood. The Pack’s lively, full atmosphere has occasionally upstaged the CFL’s Argos, who, amid a losing season, are struggling to draw fans to 25,000-seat BMO Field just five minutes away.
To take a second crack at promotion to Super League in just its third year of existence, the Wolfpack added another handful of big-name rugby league talents this year. Among them is Australian-born Samoan international Ricky Leutele, a 6-foot, 207-pound centre who won an NRL championship with the Cronulla Sharks. Leutele impressed with three tries in Toronto’s semi-final win over Toulouse Olympique two weeks ago.
“I think North America has huge untapped potential in rugby league, because they seem to like the NFL, CFL and NHL and this is another really exciting physical sport,” said Luetele, who brought his wife and three small children from their small Australian beach-side community near Cronulla to Toronto for the summer. “It’s been awesome, something so different for us. We’re not used to living in a big city. I wanted to be part of helping the sport take off in North America.”
The Wolfpack outscored opponents 1,010 to 356 this year. It finished the regular season 12 points clear of second-place Toulouse at the top of the table. Even after a different playoff format this year, Toronto has put itself right back on the doorstep of promotion.
All three finalists for the Betfred Championship player-of-the-year award were from the Wolfpack, as voted by the 14 Championship coaches: hooker Andy Ackers, loose forward Jon Wilkin and full-back Gareth O’Brien, the eventual winner.
“London deserved the win last year. We licked our wounds. It really did hurt,” said O’Brien, who scored 22 tries this season. “But this year has gone by like the blink of an eye and here we are with another chance. Hopefully we learned from last year and we can do one better.”
Wolfpack director of rugby Brian Noble said he was “like an angry dragon” for a few days after last year’s final loss. There had been a missed field goal in that game, and a few scoring chances lost after video reviews.
“On another day we might have won that game, but would we have been ready for the top division? I’m not sure,” Noble said. “What I’m really confident about now, is that this team is ready for the big division.”
The Wolfpack parted ways with Paul Rowley, its coach of two seasons, after that. Noble hired fellow Englishman Brian McDermott, who had from 2011-18 coached Leeds Rhinos – a Super League giant – to eight trophies, including four Super League titles. Last year, McDermott had been fired amid a seven-game losing streak.
Realizing a coach of that quality wouldn’t be out of a job long, Noble chased him down quickly, bolstered by the fact they had history together – and a friendship. McDermott had played for Noble in the early 2000s in Bradford.
“He’s a bit like me, he’s a missionary for the game. We know how great the game is and we want to give it to other people,” Noble said. “He’s travelled a lot, he’s a worldly man and spent time in the marines. He’s a well-rounded bloke from a big family who understands the dynamics of a big group and how to be a leader.”
Noble says he sold his old friend on the dream, but admits McDermott arrived to see some clunky off-field operations in Toronto when he first arrived on the job. The club had some late payments for the players early on. There were squabbles between the club and a TV-production partner. The Wolfpack’s majority owner, David Argyle, stepped aside as chairman and CEO after a perceived racist remark involving an opposing player.
McDermott had little problem leading the team and getting behind the cause. He had spent time coaching the U.S. national rugby league team and believes in the importance of expanding the sport beyond its strongholds in Australia and Northern England. He was a finalist for the coach-of-the-year award this year in his first season with the Pack.
“You don’t get too many bigger jobs in the game from the one I just left, but I wanted something different and this is totally different from anything that’s going on in Europe,” McDermott said. “There is huge potential for this, and I’m not just talking about winning trophies. I’m talking about growing the game here. If you look at the crowds in Toronto, they’re not manufactured. They’re not bending people’s arms to come watch us.”
Another newcomer to the Wolfpack this year is Bob Hunter, a former executive from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment who oversaw major venues such as Scotiabank Arena and BMO Field throughout his career. Hunter took over the roles of chairman and interim CEO from Argyle.
“I had attended games before I committed to David Argyle to join the team and he convinced me that this is a great opportunity to grow a new sport in a very difficult market,” Hunter said. “The physical nature of the sport is great and the athleticism. It has already developed quite a passionate following and we hope to develop it at the youth level to grow fans. When it comes to the stadium, David said to me ‘I need someone to come in and put a bit of lipstick on this.’”
Hunter said the city-owned Lamport Stadium, which the Wolfpack leases, is right-sized at a capacity of some 10,000. Hunter said its locker rooms would need immediate improvement to hold Super League teams next year.
“We know the city doesn’t have a lot of money and they may not necessarily be interested in updating it, so the initiative might have to be all our own, but we have a series of upgrade projects in mind over the next three to five years,” Hunter said.
Until earlier this week, there had been speculation that the RFL might deny the Wolfpack entry to Super League, even if it were to win on Saturday. The RFL reportedly had concerns about the scheduling, travel costs and the club’s financial status. But the RFL released a statement this week verifying that the winner of Saturday’s Million Pound Game – be it Featherstone or Toronto – will be granted entry to Super League. The London Broncos will be relegated back down to the second tier.
Unlike the Befred Championship league Toronto now plays in, Super League has a television deal with SkySports and the revenue is shared with its clubs. Some Super League sides play in stadiums that hold some 20,000 fans.
Playing in Super League would mean matches against better, faster opponents, powers such as St Helens or the Wiggan Warriors. But the Wolfpack says that wouldn’t mean a change to its own intimate game-days, where the home team would continue to mingle with fans after every game.
“We’re the first to bring it over this time of the Atlantic and we think we’re doing a positive thing,” O’Brien said. “Maybe a few kids will think, ‘Should I be a hockey player? A basketball player? Maybe a rugby league player.'”