A Super League team will play in Canada for the first time on Saturday, escalating the Toronto Wolfpack’s playoff push for promotion to the top division of British Rugby League.
The level of play will be faster and more intense as Toronto’s fascinating expansion team plays host to Hull Kingston Rovers – a club battling to keep its spot in Super League – in a playoff match at Lamport Stadium.
The Wolfpack – in just its second year of existence – appears to be mere weeks from completing its odyssey from bottom-tier League 1, to second-tier Championship and finally up to the top-level Super League. The Pack’s final challenge, though, is a gruelling playoff stretch that includes at least seven matches – four against Super League sides – and five transatlantic flights over eight weeks.
The Wolfpack, made up of mostly Britons and Australians, has several players with Super League experience, hired-on to lead the way as competition intensifies.
“This is what a lot of us came down a level to do, to get this club to Super League,” said Ashton Sims, a 6-foot-4 prop for the Wolfpack who has played in Super League and Australia’s National Rugby League. “Now it’s starting to feel like more of a reality.”
The Wolfpack finished the regular season with a 20-2-1 record, good for first place in Championship.
That earned the Pack a spot in the Super 8’s Qualifiers, which is a round-robin-style playoff featuring the top four regular-season finishers in the Championship and the bottom four from Super League, all eight playing each other once through August and September. The best four teams from that playoff make Super League next year, while the bottom four will play down in Championship.
The Wolfpack was one of four teams to get into the win column in the Qualifiers last week when it beat Championship side Halifax 14-0 in Britain.
Hull KR, Toronto’s opponent this week, is desperate for a win after a 28-10 loss to Super League side Salford last week.
The club is no stranger to the Qualifiers. Hull KR was in Super League from 2007-16 before being relegated to Championship for 2017. It has since fought its way back to Super League, led by Tim Sheens, a well-known Australian coach.
“They’re in the same situation my team was in last year, so we have every respect for the position the Wolfpack are in, but it’s our job on Saturday to put a roadblock in front of Toronto, because we don’t want them going 2-0 and us going 0-2,” Sheens said on Friday, as Hull KR prepared to train at Centennial Field in Toronto. “It was my job to get them up to Super League, and now it’s my job to keep them up.”
The Wolfpack, who played much of its regular season in lengthy blocks in Britain and then in Toronto, was hoping for a playoff schedule that would do the same – limiting its number of flights to and from England, to ease the travel imbalance between the Pack and its opponents. Yet, the Rugby Football League scheduled Toronto to start in England for one, come back home for two, back on the road for one, back home for two and then play the seventh game on the road. The means five flights over the Atlantic for the Wolfpack, while the most any of its opponents take is two.
“Rugby League could have been a whole lot fairer than what they’ve given us, and we’ve taken it on the chin, but we’re getting on with it, and we’ll manage it as best we can,” said Brian Noble, the Wolfpack’s director of rugby. “One of my concerns will be our energy at the end.”
The Wolfpack, used to the travel by now, has developed a sense of humour about the rigors. Toronto head coach Paul had some tongue-and-cheek advice for the Wolfpack’s competitors about how to get players ready after a long flight.
“We eat five boxes of Pringles and go for a 10-mile run on arrival, and that’s worked wonders for us,” Rowley said jokingly at Friday’s final practice.
Toronto has drawn home crowds of some 8,000 this year and endeared itself to sports fans with features that set it apart in a big sports market, such as offering craft beer at games and opportunities to mingle with players. But the Pack will be without two of its big-name players this week.
Rugged Scottish winger Matty Russell is recovering from a concussion. British winger Liam Kay, a fan favourite, one of the team’s most prolific scorers, and its first signing, broke his foot last week and is done for the season.
Instead fans will get their first look at newly signed Mason Caton-Brown, a young Super League-experienced winger known for his blazing speed.
For the first time, British broadcasting giant Sky Sports will televise a Wolfpack home game live.
“This playoff model creates everything TV wants: drama, jeopardy, trap-door football, four teams in and four out,” Noble said. “It brings out total desperation in teams. The level is going to be really intense.”