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Toronto Wolfpack captain Josh McCrone raises the Betfred Championship Trophy alongside teammates after defeating the Featherstone Rovers in the Million Pound Game in Betfred Championship rugby league action in Toronto, Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

The Toronto Wolfpack popped champagne, pulled on championship t-shirts and belted out their fight song to celebrate an accomplishment three seasons in the making.

On Saturday afternoon inside a packed Lamport Stadium, Toronto’s transatlantic expansion team won promotion to Super League, the top-level competition in England’s Rugby Football League (RFL).

Behind a 20-point explosion in the second half, the Wolfpack beat the visiting Featherstone Rovers 24-6 in the Betfred Championship Grand Final – also called the Million Pound Game. That’s a second promotion for Toronto’s side, made up of adventurous British and Australian players determined to grow their sport behind its strongholds in Northern England and Australia.

The Canadian franchise debuted in RFL’s bottom division in 2017, and has now earned the right to play next season in its best.

“Twice as fast, twice as tough,” said Wolfpack loose forward Jon Wilkin, when asked what Toronto sports fans can expect of Super League competition next season.

The boisterous celebration was one the Wolfpack had fallen just short of having a year ago.

Last October, the Wolfpack suffered a shocking 4-2 loss to the London Broncos in the final game of the Champ Million Pound Game and missed out on promotion to Super League. Rather than moving up, the Pack remained in the second-tier Betfred Championship this season, where they won 27 of their 28 games. They would not let the opportunity slip away on this occasion.

It was sunny but brisk and windy on Saturday as the Wolfpack took the field before their first-ever sellout crowd of 9,974 inside Lamport Stadium, in Toronto’s Liberty Village neighbourhood.

The Wolfpack, wearing their red kits, marked with white maple leafs, flirted with the goal line several times in the first eight minutes but couldn’t quite punch it over the line.

Instead it was Featherstone who struck first, as Alex Sutcliffe plunged over the line for a try 28 minutes in, met by stunned silence from the Toronto faithful. A small pocket of traveling Featherstone supporters popped to their feet and hollered.

Three minutes later Wolfpack captain Josh McCrone powered the ball over the line, but Gareth O’Brien –Player of the Year in the Betfred Championship league -- booted the conversion kick wide right, keeping Toronto behind 6-4.

Toronto, who outscored its opponents 1010-365 this year was struggling to put much of anything on the board. Featherstone seemed hungry to break Toronto’s 22-game win streak and deny the Wolfpack Super League entry once again.

The score remained that way at half-time. It felt briefly like that bizarre low-scoring Million Pound Game of last October.

“There was no panic at all,” said McCrone. “We’ve built a fantastic fan base and they expected a win and we had to deliver. We want to be in these situations. Pressure is a privilege.”

The Wolfpack finished atop the league table this season, a dominant 12 points ahead of second-place Toulouse Olympique.

Featherstone had a 17-10 record in the regular season, good for fifth in the Betfred Championship table. Then they barreled through the playoffs with three road wins over Leigh Centurions, York City Knights and Toulouse Olympique en route to the final in Toronto.

The defensive battle that had ensued between the two sides in Saturday’s first half was a glimpse of what Super League intensity is like.

Blaring music and a Tina Turner impersonator at half-time seemed to lighten the mood and break the tension inside Lamport. A crowd heavy on those in wooly wolf hats, Wolfpack jerseys and black and white supporter scarves got loud when the Wolfpack jogged back onto the pitch for the final 40 minutes.

Featherstone stopped Toronto several more times at the goal line in the second half before Blake Wallace finally rumbled across at the 56-minute mark for the Pack. This time, O’Brien made good on the conversion, and the Wolfpack took a 10-6 lead.

From there, the Wolfpack couldn’t be stopped. Bodene Thompson and Joe Mellor both thundered in for tries as well. With the game well in hand, Wallace kicked a final two points.

Veteran Australian prop Ashton Sims came back into the game to finish out the final minutes of a 17-year rugby league career before the final hooter sounded to begin his retirement. He had played his final two seasons in Toronto.

“We’re going to have a few beers tonight, put our arms around one another and sing some karaoke,” said Sims with a championship medal around his neck. “I’m so happy that we’ve taken a sport that I love so much and brought it to a new city, where they love sports and really back their teams. I’m from the coast, and I’ve never liked big cities, but the Big Smoke here in Toronto has really changed my mind.”

Ralph Rimmer, CEO of the Rugby Football League traveled to Canada for Saturday’s match. He confirmed that indeed the Wolfpack have satisfied all the requirements to be welcomed into Super League next year. He said for at least its first year in Super League, the Wolfpack will not receive money from the revenue-sharing deal Super League has with host broadcaster SkySports, like the other Super League teams do.

The Wolfpack brass will travel the UK next week to finalize the final terms of the Super League contract, which Wolfpack Chairman and Interim CEO Bob Hunter hopes will be renewable after 12 months.

Rimmer verified that RFL has serious interest in adding expansion teams in Ottawa and New York, with Ottawa likely to happen first. Rimmer said other cities in Europe have expressed interest in adding expansion franchises as well, but he declined to elaborate on those locations.

Super League has 12 teams – 11 English and one in Catalans, France. The Wolfpack will replace London Broncos, who finished last among the 12 teams in Super League and will be relegated back to Championship.

Pre-season for the Wolfpack begins again in just three weeks time.

“This is something I’ll look back on in five, 10 years time and say ‘I was there when it started,’ said McCrone. “I think this is a massive opportunity for rugby league, and I’m glad we took that opportunity now, and got to Super League.”

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