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Toronto Wolfpack cross the Atlantic for rugby league home opener this weekend

Wolfpack land in Toronto for home opener

TORONTO — Eight games into their inaugural rugby league season, the Wolfpack arrive in Toronto on Tuesday for this weekend’s home opener.

Such is the life of rugby’s first transatlantic team that Saturday’s Lamport Stadium contest is, in truth, an away game for the Wolfpack as well as visiting Oxford RLFC.

Most of the Toronto players plied their trade in northern England prior to joining the Wolfpack and have remained in their homes there, commuting first to the team training centre in Brighouse, West Yorkshire, and now Canada.

“I’ve not (been to Canada) but everybody I’ve spoke to has got really rave reviews about the place,” said six-foot-four 251-pound prop Adam Sidlow, who calls Wigan home. “I’m really excited about it and looking forward to what you’ve got out there.”

Like Sidlow, most of the 20 Wolfpack players making the trip this week have never set foot in Canada. It will even be a first for American Ryan Burroughs, a Virginia native whose rugby league career has already taken him to Australia and England. 

Burroughs is the lone North American-born player currently listed on the Wolfpack roster. Rhys Jacks and Tom Dempsey are so-called heritage Canadian internationals — Australians who qualify for Canada through their bloodlines.

Chad Bain of Belleville, Ont., and Victoria’s Quinn Ngawati are part of the club but are seen as long-term projects who will develop their skills at rugby league academies.

The Wolfpack players will be staying at George Brown College’s residence, which served as the Pan American Games athletes village. They will train at Lamport and at Fortis Fitness.

The visiting teams will stay in residence at York University where they can use the gym, swimming pool, training fields and other facilities. The Oxford contingent arrives Thursday.

After Oxford (2-2-0), the Wolfpack (5-0-0) head back to England for a May 12 game at the Newcastle Thunder. Then it’s back to Toronto for back-to-back home games against the Barrow Raiders (also currently 5-0-0) and Coventry Bears.

Two more away games then four straight at home. And so it goes.

The Wolfpack have started in the third tier of English rugby league, looking to win promotion to the second-tier Championship and then the elite Super League.

The arrival of the Toronto team was greeted by skepticism in some quarters. The logistics of playing on both sides of the Atlantic combined with the choice of rugby’s less popular code seemed a hard sell.

But the squad has been a success on and off the field, at least so far in England where it has been the talk of the sport.

“It’s fair to say we’re the hottest team media-wise in the world right now in rugby league,” said Wolfpack CEO Eric Perez, who has spent years planning to bring the sport to his home town. “Everyone’s got their eyes on us. We’ve got tons of interest globally … The fact is that people want to know what we’re doing. It’s the first time that has ever been done.”

The New York Times’ story on the Wolfpack was headlined “For a Toronto Rugby Team, Some Games are an Ocean Away.”

“Toronto Wolfpack Could Lead Rugby League Renaissance in Northern Hemisphere,” said the Sydney Morning Herald. 

Rugby union is watching closely. Rugby Canada, looking to bring professional rugby here, has already held talks with the Guinness Pro12, which features teams in Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.

And the NFL, among other major North American leagues, continues to test European waters.   

The Wolfpack already have 14,300 Twitter followers, not bad for a franchise that has been around less than a year. The Super League-leading Castleford Tigers, formed in 1926, boast 39,500 followers.

On the field, the fully professional Wolfpack have been ruthless, outscoring semi-pro opponents 310-37 in its five Kingstone Press League 1 wins.

Toronto beat the London Broncos, who play in the second-tier Championship, 30-26 in the knockout Ladbrokes Challenge Cup before falling 29-22 to Salford, the third-place team in the Super League, last time out.  

The Salford setback has been the only loss in eight league and Cup games to date.

With an ownership group that includes Australian mining entrepreneur David Argyle, the Wolfpack mean business.

While there was no expansion fee, the Toronto franchise paid a “good-faith” fee of 250,000 pounds (C$441,115) to English rugby league’s governing body. And the Canadian team agreed to pay the travel and housing costs for visiting teams for all seasons until they make the Super League.

A sponsorship deal with Air Transat has helped ease the travel costs for both Wolfpack and visitors.

One question that will be answered this weekend is how hospitable a home Lamport Stadium can be.

Built on the site of the Mercer Reformatory for Women, Canada’s first women’ prison, the 42-year-old facility located near Liberty Village is rudimentary at best. The Wolfpack are trying their best to make it fan-friendly, even offering local craft beer, but it is a very basic venue.

Lamport can accommodate 9,600 but Perez says not every section will be in use for the opener. He is expecting 5,000 to 6,000 Saturday.

“I’d be happy with an average of 3,000 this year,” he said of attendance.

Perez is already planning for the future, saying playing in BMO Field is “possible.”

“We’ve already had some talks,” he said. “Building our own stadium is also a possibility we’re looking into right now. Or even renovating Lamport Stadium.”

The plan is to use the existing Lamport artificial surface this season with a new one set to be installed next year. 

For the rugby league uninitiated, the learning curve of figuring out the 13-man game will be matched only by deciphering some of the Wolfpack’s northern England accents.

Rugby league’s tool box contains both a sledge hammer and a delicate paint brush. Fans will see a physical, entertaining game that features big men colliding in numbers as well as elegant speed merchants looking to cut through the defence or launch themselves over the goal-line.

The Wolfpack, under the leadership of young coach Paul Rowley and veteran director of rugby Brian Noble, play an exciting expansive game with captain Craig Hall, fullback Quentin Laulu-Togaga’e â€” known as QLT for short — and wingers Jonny Pownall and Liam Kay leading the way.

On Monday, the Wolfpack announced TekSavvy as their official telecom partner with Saturday’s game billed as the TekSavvy Home Opener.

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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press