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Toronto Wolfpack players react after losing to the London Broncos, in Toronto, on Oct. 7, 2018.Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press

After a frustrating afternoon of denials at the goal line, Toronto Wolfpack players looked gutted and heartbroken as they watched their London Broncos opponents pop Champagne and holler in celebration.

Sweat-soaked after a defensive battle, the collection of British and Australian rugby stars on the two-year-old Toronto expansion side stared blankly and clapped politely for their opponents as they processed the stinging news. Toronto’s quest for promotion to Super League will have to wait until next year.

The Wolfpack lost Rugby League’s Million Pound Game 4-2 in Toronto on Sunday – a bizarre matchup with an exasperating lack of scoring. It catapulted the Broncos back to the top-flight Super League for the first time since they were relegated in 2014. The Wolfpack will return to second-tier Betfred Championship next season, and will start another lengthy season-long attempt at promotion.

Before a franchise-record crowd of 9,266 at Lamport Stadium on Thanksgiving Sunday, the Wolfpack went into the game heavily favoured. After going 50-7-2 over its first two seasons, the Pack appeared poised to become the first team in the history of English rugby-league competition to achieve promotions in back-to-back seasons.

“I don’t really have the words at the moment to describe how frustrating and disappointing that result is after everything we’ve done all year,” said Wolfpack captain Josh McCrone, as a small group of dedicated Wolfpack fans continued to sing and bang drums long after the team left the field. “There are clubs who have been around for 100-plus years and don’t get this kind of support.”

It was a chilly and grey afternoon inside Lamport with a dense fog in the Toronto skies, so thick it hid the top of the CN Tower and much of Toronto’s cityscape.

In a first half packed with bone-crushing hits and feisty goal-line stands, there was nothing but a single London goal kick to put on the scoreboard.

The Wolfpack had an early attempt nullified by an offside call after video review. They had several close attempts fall frustratingly short, including a long run in which winger Mason Caton-Brown streaked down the sideline kicking the ball forward with two defenders tailing him hungrily as the Toronto faithful roared with excitement. But as with many of his teammates on the chilly afternoon, he struggled to actually seize control of the ball and deliver it over the line.

Just inside the second half, it looked though Toronto’s hulking long-haired star Australian prop, Ashton Sims, had broken the goal plane in a crowd of bodies. But officials went to video review, and said he was stopped short.

Gareth O’Brien tied the game with a Toronto goal kick, but the Broncos quickly added another to regain the slim lead.

More heartbreak would follow and keep the Wolfpack fans in quiet disbelief, including a missed Toronto goal kick by O’Brien, and a Blake Wallace try also called short after video review. Then with seven seconds remaining on the clock Wolfpack hooker Bob Beswick was levelled to the turf in a crushing hit that had medical staff at his side for several frightening moments, before helping him off.

When the final hooter sounded, it was quiet inside Lamport Stadium, except for the few jubilant voices of red-uniformed Broncos, celebrating their underdog victory, running across the turf and leaping into one another’s arms..

“When you’ve not put your best foot forward, that’s when you really kick yourself, but it wasn’t for a lack of effort,” Wolfpack coach Paul Rowley said. “You have to look at the players, playing through all sorts of adversity for an entire year. It makes it worse when you feel you could have done things better. From top to bottom, we could have done things better. We’ll stick together, that’s what team is about. This is a family.”

The Wolfpack represents the beginning of North American expansion for Rugby Football League, a sport whose 123-year history has been limited to industrial towns in Northern England.

It came at the end of a gruelling two-month postseason in which eight teams played off for four Super League spots – the four best regular-season finishers from the second division and the bottom four in Super League. The Wolfpack made six flights across the Atlantic during the postseason and finished fourth in the round robin-style playoff with a 5-2 record. That included a victory last week over 2018 Super League champs, Leeds Rhinos, in Headingly Stadium in West Yorkshire, one of the most prominent venues in English Rugby League.

That win meant that for a brief period last weekend, it appeared Toronto would surely get third spot and along with it, automatic promotion. But as the rest of the teams finished that weekend, the Wolfpack slipped shockingly into fourth on points differential.

A week later, the picture changed so much. The 5-2 record landed Toronto in fourth place in the playoff standings, and a spot in Sunday’s fourth-fifth showdown game that decided the final spot in Super League. Now it’s London – not Toronto – alongside the 10 English and one French team in Super League, the best in British rugby league.

“We’re not going to sit on our hands and sulk over this,” McCrone said. “We’re disappointed , but we’ll be back next year. Unfortunately, it will be from square one, but that’s life. That’s the way the cookie crumbled today.”

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