Catching You Up - The Toronto Wolfpack
The Toronto Wolfpack are off to a great start in what is shaping up to be one of the most unique seasons in pro sports. After 3 rounds the Wolfpack find themselves in 2nd place (2-0-1 record) in the BetFred Championship, the second tier of England’s RFL. This is despite an offseason full of uncertainty that came to a very unusual end, and the promise that the season may only get more unusual.
By definition the Toronto Wolfpack are already a unique team. The Wolfpack are the only North American team in England’s Rugby Football League system. They play a sport that is relatively new to both the country and the city that they call home. Even the bulk of Canadian rugby fans are more familiar with rugby union than rugby league (union and league have distinct rules similar to the NFL vs CFL). They play their home games at Toronto’s Lamport stadium and all but one road game in the United Kingdom (Toulouse Olympique is located in France). Making the trip to Toronto proved to be complicated for a few teams in their first season. In order to facilitate the other clubs, the Wolfpack and their airline sponsor Air Transat have agreed to pay the bill on the travel arrangements for their visiting teams. Meaning the Wolfpack essentially pay for their opponents to come to Toronto. In their inaugural season the Wolfpack played out their schedule in blocks of 3 or 4. Basically Canada for a month, United Kingdom for a month. However, complications with a renovation to Lamport Stadium have led to one of the strangest looking schedules you will ever see for a pro sports team. The Betfred Championship plays a 23 game schedule. You play every team once at home, once on the road, plus one game at the Summer Bash (a kind of rugby festival where all 6 games featuring all 12 teams are played in the same stadium of a weekend. The Wolfpack have also been invited to play in an extra game at the Super League’s Magic Weekend (same idea as Summer Bash) partially for marketing, partially to buy more time. Therefore, the Wolfpack open up their season with 12 straight road games. In round 13 they final make their season debut in front of their home fans only to go back to England for two weeks to play in the Magic Weekend and Summer Bash events. That’s followed by their remaining 8 games in Toronto.
The Wolfpack also had a bizarre offseason when it came to assembling the squad for the season as well. After handily winning promotion with a 1st place finish in League 1, the Wolfpack wanted to get stronger with the step up in competition. The Wolfpack signed a number of players including Josh McCrone, Ashton Sims, and Dave Taylor all out of Australia’s NRL, which is great because they lost a lot of key players too. The Wolfpack’s first Captain Craig Hall and prop Dan Fleming both left the club citing personal reasons linked to the weird schedule and the travel associated with being a member of the Wolfpack. Additionally, with two weeks prior to the season starting the Wolfpack released Ryan Bailey, Fuifui Moimoi, and Dave Taylor following an off field incident at training camp in Portugal. The incident is bizarre for a number of reasons. As mentioned, Taylor was just signed by the Wolfpack in the offseason and had yet to even don the black and white for a game. The Wolfpack had just spent considerable time and resources helping Bailey win a court case where he was faced with a doping allegation. Moimoi was a fan favourite in Toronto. One of the largest players in the league he would routinely smash through the opposition much to the delight of the Toronto faithful. The strangest thing about the incident though is that no one seems to know what actually happened. Although it is being speculated that the three missed curfew numerous times as well as breaking other team rules. The Wolfpack have not officially confirmed anything. The only thing that is clear is the Wolfpack clearly had no intentions of releasing these players. A new signing, a fan favourite, and a player you just went out of your way to ensure he could play for the team, all while gearing up for the first preseason game. The Wolfpack did make a few late signings in Nick Rawsthorne, Jack Buchanan, and Jake Butler-Fleming to fill the vacated roster spots.
However, the oddest part about this season is that the Wolfpack and the rest of the Championship teams do not even really know what they are playing for this year. The Rugby Football League has undergone some major political and leadership changes during the off season which has left the future of rugby league up in the air. Ralph Rimmer, now the Interim CEO, has said even if Toronto Wolfpack win the Championship it won’t necessarily mean that they will be promoted to Super League. That was soon followed by rumours that Super League might be expanding from 12 to 14 teams next year which could alter the entire promotion-relegation system in the RFL. This was all prior to the season starting. Now more recent speculation has come out saying the RFL may be reducing Super League to 10 teams instead. Ultimately this leaves 24 teams who are unsure of their fate beyond this season. Even is these changes are made nobody knows if it will be for immediately for the 2019 season or a slower adjustment period.
Despite the unknown, The Toronto Wolfpack are off to a great start this year. They shocked the Leigh Centurions, betting favourite to win the Championship, in the season opener 34-12. A hard fought and extremely muddy 8-8 draw with the Barrow Raiders and solid all round defeat of Halifax followed in the next 2 weeks. The most unique season in pro sports will continue as the Wolfpack head to the capital to take on the London Broncos this Sunday.