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The Wolfpack, a team just three seasons into its existence, is built mostly of Brits and Australians determined to grow their 13-man brand of rugby in North America.Cole Burston/The Canadian Press

After its bone-crushing victory on Saturday earned it promotion to Super League, the Toronto Wolfpack have just 3 1/2 weeks to rest up before the players hit the field to prepare for their first season in the highest tier of English rugby league.

There is precious little time down time for the transatlantic expansion club, which just earned promotion to 2020 Super League competition by beating the Featherstone Rovers in the Betfred Championship’s Million Pound Game before a soldout crowd of 9,974 at Toronto’s Lamport Stadium.

The Wolfpack, a team just three seasons into its existence, is built mostly of Brits and Australians determined to grow their 13-man brand of rugby in North America. The Toronto club planned to climb through the bottom two levels and up to Super League within five seasons, but it took only three.

Now it becomes a member of the best rugby league competition in the northern hemisphere, alongside 10 English teams and one from France. Hanging with the elite will be Toronto’s biggest challenge yet. Super League opponents will be dramatically faster and more skilled than those the Pack faced while rolling to first-place finishes in the bottom and second tiers of England’s pro rugby-league circuit.

“We’re in the big leagues now; I’ve always wanted the people of Toronto to see us in Super League,” said the Wolfpack’s director of rugby, Brian Noble, who is also the team’s general manager, talent scout and roster architect. “We might get beaten a few more times next season, but the competition and the excitement will just go through the roof.”

Super League kicks off in February, so the Wolfpack has just a few weeks to heal from a long, hard-hitting season before the players start training in Britain. Because of the Toronto winter, the Wolfpack isn’t expected to play home games until spring.

Toronto’s current roster has many players with Super League experience, along with those who have competed in the southern hemisphere’s top league, Australia’s National Rugby League. Noble says the Wolfpack will keep about 90 per cent of its current players and add three or four new ones.

“We need to get a little faster and stronger for Super League,” Noble said. “But I think the character of this group will get them through a lot of games next year.”

Wolfpack loose forward Jon Wilkin says that just reaching the Super League won’t be enough to keep expanding the fan base in Toronto and winning over any critics who still doubt that a North American franchise can be viable long term.

“We’re not going in to Super League just to be there; we’re going to compete,” Wilkin said on the field Saturday, his uniform drenched in celebratory champagne after the win. “It can’t be about Toronto idling mid-table in Super League. We’ve got to push boundaries and standards.”

Before moving to Toronto, Wilkin spent 16 seasons with Super League powerhouse St Helens, helping to stock the shelves with trophies. The native of Northern England says he was very skeptical about a North American franchise at first, especially after a Paris franchise tried it 20 years ago and lost its financial backing just two seasons in. Still, Wilkin chose to take a leap in Toronto. The 35-year-old player was asked to create in the Wolfpack the kind of culture and tradition that helped him thrive at St Helens.

The Wolfpack’s addition to Britain’s top league is a significant step for the brand of rugby that has been largely confined to Australia, New Zealand, Northern England and France. Canadians have traditionally been more familiar with the 15-man code, rugby union.

While the Toronto Wolfpack has grown at a break-neck pace in its quick three years, it doesn’t yet have the polish of Toronto’s other pro sports franchises. City-owned Lamport Stadium is 54 years old. Its bench seating is aged and concrete, and its concourses and concession booths look like something from an outdated community hockey rink. The locker rooms are in desperate need of renovation before Super League opponents visit next spring.

The Wolfpack doesn’t yet draw anywhere near the media attention that the Maple Leafs, Raptors or Blue Jays do. Media sit on folding tables in the stands rather than a press box. The team struggled at times with clunky growing pains, such as late pay cheques to players.

Authenticity, though, is part of the Wolfpack’s charm. Lamport Stadium may be old, but it provides an intimacy that Toronto’s big pro sports venues simply can’t. It has a tented craft beer garden in the end zone, and its players make the rounds and visit with fans after every match. The players are often seen taking Toronto’s streetcar or riding city bikes to practice. Its majority owner, Australian mining millionaire David Argyle, has demonstrated the deep pockets and passion to see it through. He was among those wrapping his arms around the players in celebration after the big win on Saturday.

“If you experience this environment in Toronto, I believe you’ll come back, because it’s a violent, physical sport that’s played fairly and embraces a lot of the things I think people here like about sport,” Wilkin said. “We need this facility to improve. … To establish this as our genuine home grounds will take some investment from the city, and I hope rugby league can inspire that investment.”

Toronto Mayor John Tory took in Saturday’s game and addressed the crowd before the Wolfpack received the Betfred Championship Trophy, vowing to give out Wolfpack hats to colleagues on his travels just as he does those for the NBA champion Toronto Raptors.

The Wolfpack’s management group will travel to Britain this week to meet with Super League chief executive Robert Elstone to finalize logistical details for next season and the financial terms of their agreement.

The governing body, the Rugby Football League (RFL), has signed off on Toronto’s entry to Super League. But for at least this season, the Wolfpack is expected to keep abiding by terms in its current agreement. That means the Toronto club will keep footing the bill for visiting teams’ travel and accommodations, a load eased by a sponsorship deal with Air Transat.

Super League games are broadcast on Sky Sports and the revenue is shared with its teams, however Toronto will not get a cut of that revenue, at least during its first year in the top tier. The Wolfpack’s agreement is expected to be up for renegotiation after 12 months.

“We think, quite honestly, that we’ll prove ourselves to be a great team member and family member,” said Bob Hunter, a former long-time executive from Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment who recently joined the Wolfpack as chairman and interim CEO.

RFL’s chief executive officer, Ralph Rimmer, travelled to Toronto for Saturday’s game and said he has been impressed with team’s local support on each of his four visits. He said it was a real “leap of faith” to welcome in a North American team three years ago. A transatlantic team causes major challenges for all teams, regarding overseas travel, game-scheduling, broadcasting and visas for players. At first, many opposing teams thought it would be a real headache to travel to Toronto.

“There’s been an amazing amount of problem-solving involved, from both sides of the water, but the progress has been spectacular,” Rimmer said. “Toronto has worked its way through the divisions really fast and everyone who has come here has come away with a really good experience.”

Rimmer said Toronto’s quick progress has inspired interest in other markets. A group in Ottawa is organizing its efforts quickly, and New York may be right behind them. Rimmer confirmed that there have been expressions of other European cities, but he declined to elaborate.

“It’s absolutely true that the appearance of Toronto demonstrates what can be achieved,” Rimmer said. “It has stimulated interest in other parts of the world.”

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