History was made in London on Saturday with the league debut of the first transatlantic sports team.
For all the constant talk, though, it was not the eagerly-awaited entrance of a professional side from the English capital in the National Football League (NFL) or National Basketball Association (NBA).
No, this was Canada’s moment in the sporting spotlight as the Toronto Wolfpack overwhelmed the London Skolars 76-0 in Kingstone Press League One, the third tier of English rugby league, with 1,542 fans there to witness it.
For coach Paul Rowley, the landmark could be significant as he told Sport360: “This has the potential to be as important as the initial meeting of rugby league, the Northern Union breakaway in Huddersfield 122 years ago.”
The seeds were first sown when chief executive, and Torontonian, Eric Perez watched the 2005 Super League Grand Final between Bradford Bulls and Leeds Rhinos.
“He was inspired by that and said he’s got to take this to Canada,” revealed Brian Noble, who coached Bradford to victory in that game and, ironically, is now the Wolfpack’s Director of Rugby.
And despite winning three Super League and World Club Challenge titles, this was a role, a challenge, he could not resist after being impressed by the lofty ambitions of Perez and owner David Argyle, a wealthy Australian businessman.
Their aim is to reach Super League – and Noble and Rowley are hellbent on making that dream come true, faster than a five-year target.
“It’s absolutely possible,” said an upbeat Noble. “Anything is possible with the right system, structures, coaching and players. The element of fear I’m never worried about, and if you give 100 per cent and you are backed then I believe you can achieve something special.
“I’ve done everything in the game, but to start something from scratch and build it up to Super League in hopefully a few years’ time is ambitious to say the least. If we do it, I think it would surpass what I’ve done before.
Not a bad start, eh? 😉🇨🇦🤘🐺🐾💥 pic.twitter.com/HTE7jQDdj5— Toronto Wolfpack (@TOwolfpack) March 4, 2017
“If, in two years’ time when we are in the hallowed turfs of Super League, there will be no prouder man than me to walk with David Argyle and Eric Perez to lead the team out. It will be a complete icing on the cake for my career.
“There’s an element of suspicion, doubt and it’s part of the Northern England mentality that ‘you’ll never do that, it’s too hard’. But change is massively needed in our sport. It is good but we need a new audience, fresh enthusiasm, new places to go. We are pioneers, like the original pioneers who went out to America.”
Noble, who also coached Wigan, Crusaders, Salford and Great Britain, admits to ‘mindblowing’ logistical challenges and obstacles unlike any he has faced before. None more so than making a venture based 3,500 miles away run smoothly.
The Wolfpack, whose first official competitive game was a battling 14-6 win at Siddal in the Challenge Cup third round last weekend, will be based in Brighouse, near Huddersfield, to fulfil away fixtures while home games will be at Lamport Stadium in downtown Toronto.
With sponsors such as airline, Air Transat, they will pay travel and accommodation costs for opponents coming to Canada, and have refused prize money entitlement for the first two seasons. Gary Carter, who covers RL for The Sun, feels the bold move, unanimously approved by the Rugby Football League, has much to admire.
“At first glance, the thought of near 7,000-mile round trips for away games may sound daft, but the more you look into it, with the genuine money they have behind them and the expertise they appear to have associated with them, Toronto could end up being the real deal,” he said.
“Their attitude off the field is very much business orientated, rather than that of a club that is fixed in its local community and ends up being restricted by that.
“Rowley talks of spending time in rooms with people from blue-chip companies and the fact Toronto have a TV deal in Canada shows their intent. They also have the biggest shirt sponsorship deal in the game, figures that do not point to a short-term fling.”
While Rowley refers to the creation of the team – which included trials in Vancouver, Tampa, Philadelphia and Kingston, Jamaica, for North American talent – as a Hollywood movie, this could be their own Field of Dreams.
With an untapped market and supportive backers, Noble believes “if they build it, the people will come”. “We have an ambitious ownership group that want to promote the game in North America, not just Canada,” he said.
“We have 10,000 expressions of interest from fans, so that’s possibly 10-12,000 crowds. Psychologically, rugby league is the toughest sport in the world and physically you have to be an unbelievable specimen to play. I think it’s tailor made for the market we are going into.
“I think the Torontonians will love rugby league. It’s simpler than union and a lot like Canadian and American football so they will understand the collision, but its non-stop for 80 minutes. I think they will be blown away by it.
“Of course, this has risks. We haven’t done the travel yet and genuinely won’t know where we are until we get into that. But we have a club ready to face those tests. “It’s a bit like when the French team Catalans Dragons first came into Super League [in 2006] and had a years’ lead up. They have been a fantastic success story and I am hoping we will be as successful.
“We had the perfect start at London and it showed the desire, commitment and professionalism of the team. Now we have to maintain that.”
Excitement outweighs any apprehension as Rowley, a former England hooker who led Leigh to Championship titles in 2014 and 2015, says: “It’s fairytale stuff. When we first got the lads in, there was nothing tangible and thought this can’t be real. But every step we take is a ground-breaking step.”
It could also provide the template for teams to be similarly formed in other parts of the world to play in overseas leagues. Toulouse Olympique became the second French team to join the English rugby league in 2016 and won immediate promotion from League One to the Championship.
Given their proximity to Australia and the attraction of the NRL, Rowley reckons the UAE and Asia are potential markets too.
We went through extraneous measures to ensure we drafted at least 3 N. American players via open tryout. Rome wasn't built in a day kind sir— Toronto Wolfpack (@TOwolfpack) March 4, 2017
“This can kick-start people’s imaginations into realising the world is a smaller place and more accessible. The boundaries are coming down and it’s not too difficult or unrealistic to put teams in as many countries as you so wish.
“I have family in Dubai and seen how they build from the bottom up and want to create the biggest and the best, so why not have a rugby league team based from there, whether taking part in Super League or the NRL? It’s not about people through turnstiles anymore, but eyeballs on TV and money.
“You have to be forward thinking. Before our introduction, some other tweaks happening were a slow death for our game. But we will hit China, Japan too. There is not a corner of the world that doesn’t have something to offer.”
With Canada and the US hosting the RL World Cup in 2025, Noble says there is interest in setting up new teams in Montreal, Boston and New York. “People say we are in Canada, but it’s a six-hour flight, Dubai is maybe seven,” he added.
“It takes you longer to go from Bradford to Torquay in a bus. “Super League, for me, has been flat the last couple of years and the game needs innovation. Toronto will be refreshing.”
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