David Argyle was some 5,500-kilometres away when the Toronto Wolfpack clinched the second-tier Betfred Championship regular-season title with a weekend win at Widnes Vikings.
But the Wolfpack majority owner was watching.
Argyle celebrated the 24-19 comeback victory with fans at a viewing party at a local Toronto brew pub. The Toronto-based Australian mining-and-resources entrepreneur likes nothing more than to watch his transatlantic rugby-league team with faithful fans.
With the team having won 21 of 22 games this season, there has been plenty to enjoy. Argyle points to the ferocity of the Wolfpack defence, its exciting offence plus the team’s depth under coach Brian McDermott.
As the third-year team continues its promotion push to the Super League, Argyle believes the best is yet to come.
“We want to win trophies. We’re not ashamed about saying that we want to be a powerhouse in rugby [league],” he said. “That remains our ambition. We’re working hard to achieve that.”
While progress on the field has been smooth, there have been bumps on the road this season with the spotlight on the owner.
Argyle spent the team’s inaugural 2017 season in the England’s third-tier League 1 in the background, leaving then-president Eric Perez to be the face of the franchise. A happy Argyle, champagne bottle in hand, declined to comment when celebrating his team’s first league title on the field at Lamport Stadium.
Argyle stepped out of the shadows in 2018 with selective media interviews, but made it clear that he would not remain in the limelight.
“As soon as the focus becomes on the owners, sports clubs can go sideways,” Argyle told The Canadian Press that year.
Sadly, Argyle put that theory to the test last month after getting embroiled in a racism scandal arising from a comment to a visiting Swinton player after a game in Toronto.
Argyle stepped down as chairman and chief executive officer, essentially firing himself. Fined $12,275 by the Rugby Football League, the sport’s governing body, he retreated into the background after apologizing and throwing himself on his sword.
The Wolfpack kept winning. Sunday’s victory in Widnes extended Toronto’s win streak to 16, despite the absence of key backs Ricky Leutele, Matty Russell and Gareth O’Brien.
And as the team’s search for a new chairman nears its close – with a CEO appointment to follow – there is still plenty for Argyle to do.
Toronto has five regular-season games to prepare for the promotion playoffs, knowing it has home-field advantage and a bye to the semi-finals.
Unlike last season, when Toronto fell short at the last promotion hurdle in a 4-2 loss to London Broncos in the Million Pound Game after an eight-team playoff round-robin, the postseason format is more compact this year, with five teams competing for one promotion place. This season, Toronto could secure its place in the Super League with just two playoff wins.
Should the Wolfpack secure promotion to the Super League, negotiations will be needed to sort out how a transatlantic team fits in the top tier. Toronto’s original five-year participation agreement is with the Rugby Football League. The Super League has become more autonomous since, complicating matters.
“Right now we’re not back at the drawing board, but we are in discussions with the RFL and will be with the Super League when the time is appropriate to update the participation agreement, based on where we are now with the various competitions and how is the best way to go forward,” Argyle said.
“There’s still a lot of hurdles to get through,” he added, referencing the promotion playoffs.
To date, Toronto has paid for opposing teams’ travel and accommodation – with a sponsorship deal with Air Transat helping. It also paid for its own TV broadcast production, with games airing in Britain on Sky TV and the Wolfpack able to market the games elsewhere.
Argyle would only say the current negotiations involve ensuring an even playing field commercially.
The Wolfpack strategy has been aimed at “growing up our eyeballs,” in Argyle’s words, and then to monetize them.
That has included filling the 9,600-capacity Lamport stadium. The team has been generous with free tickets in a bid to expose people to its product at a fan-friendly if spartan venue, where the end zone’s beer garden is one big party.
Every conversion attempt at the north end of the stadium draws close scrutiny, with cheers erupting if the ball hits a passing streetcar.
Argyle says the plan is to stay at Lamport and work with the city to continue upgrades to make it more fan- and player-friendly.
“I love Lamport,” he said. “I think Lamport is a perfect stadium for this sport. It’s also the right size for us. ... It’s a wonderful location. I like the grittiness of the stadium a lot. I think it matches the gladitorial nature of rugby.”
He even likes the general-admission concrete bench seating, saying it allows for people to sit anywhere they want – and in groups if they want to. But Argyle acknowledges the aging venue “needs some love.”
And he has big dreams when it comes to viewership.
“We want to see our games broadcast around the world. Unashamedly, we do want to be a global rugby brand, and we’ve made a lot of progress in the last two and two-thirds seasons.”
The team has had growing pains off the field. It currently faces a lawsuit from Alberta’s ILink Media Group, which alleges it is owed more than $125,000 in unpaid bills from 2018 TV broadcast work.
The Wolfpack has also run into border issues in the U.K. with Australian forward Darcy Lussick in limbo recently after being denied entry to England.
Argyle says the red tape was the result of a misunderstanding of the protocol that had been agreed on between the RFL and Britain’s Home Office. He sees it as an unfortunate byproduct of the team’s complex situation. In other words, it’s not easy making rules for a Canadian club playing in a U.K. competition.
“I’m confident that all these issues will be worked out,” he said.
He says the same of the lawsuit.
Argyle found himself in the midst of a racism scandal after Swinton Lions prop Jose Kenga took aim at him on social media in early June. Kenga says, after approaching a teammate speaking to Argyle in the wake of the Lions’ 52-10 loss in Toronto on April 28, Argyle looked at him and said, “Do they allow black people in Swinton?” and then laughed.
Kenga said he told Argyle “ ‘You can’t say that in this day and age,’ and he just laughed, brushed it off and handed over a drink token to me.”
Argyle promptly issued an apology and then stepped down as chairman and CEO. Some six weeks later, he is still mortified at the incident.
“I remain embarrassed, not just for making Jose feel uncomfortable but also for any damage done to the [Wolfpack] team and the brand,” he said.
Argyle does have an issue with how Kenga’s original complaint was handled by rugby-league authorities. The Swinton player eventually went public, believing nothing was being done. Argyle, meanwhile, says he was unaware of the complaint until Kenga turned to social media.
Argyle says he remains in regular contact with Kenga and consulted with him before he started attending games again. And while he does not make excuses for what he said, he maintains it was part of a conversation with a Swinton fan about how Toronto’s multicultural makeup makes for a great city.
“I get that the way I said it, how I said it, when I said it, it was wrong,” he said. “There was actually a conversation along those lines. That in no way mitigates my mistake. .. I feel terrible about it. I’ll continue to work to be a good host and to be more aware of how, when, what I say and the context.”