Welcome home boys! The Wolfpack finally made their 2018 debut on Canadian soil after 3 months in Europe. Lamport Field is still undergoing renovations so the game was held at Fletcher’s Fields in Markham. Despite the change in location 3000 rugby league fans, including about 100 from Swinton, made the trip north of the city. The Wolfpack treated their home fans to a brilliant display easily defeating the visiting Swinton Lions 62-14.
Before I discuss the game, I just wanted to touch on some of the off-field aspects of the trip. The Wolfpack are completely unique in the sports world. Despite being “Toronto” the team spends the majority of their time in Europe. Training camp is held in Europe, the team has a UK base in Manchester where they practice and train, and they have started the season with an unheard of 14 road games in a row. All this meant that when the Wolfpack arrived in Toronto, it was the first time many of the players have ever been to the city. It was cool to see the players’ various social media accounts as they all explored Toronto. The highlight for many of them seemed to be taking in Game 2 of the Raptors vs Cavaliers series. I’m glad they got that in because they might not get another chance. As many of the Wolfpack pointed out, LeBron James is pretty good at basketball. Ultimately, it was great to see the players’ and their families genuinely enjoy the week in Toronto. In order for the Wolfpack to succeed the players have to enjoy living in Toronto as much as their fans enjoy heading out on a Saturday afternoon to watch them play.
In the game itself, the Wolfpack delivered. There was no brawl like last year’s home opener, but that’s fine since the quality of rugby league on display was great. Despite the home crowd, it was the Swinton Lions who exploded out of the gate. The Lions began the game by kicking off short. It seemed to have caught the Wolfpack off guard, only Nick Rawsthorne was in the area and Swinton’s pressure forced a knock on. Swinton was able to capitalize on the possession as Chris Hankinson slotted a penalty goal to put the Lions up 2-0 early. The short kickoff seemed to have been a big part of Swinton’s strategy. They went to it often. There was times too, just like the opening kickoff, where the Wolfpack seemed to struggle with returning it. Of course there was the time when Cory Paterson handled the kick beautifully and Nick Rawsthorne ran the ball back for another try in under a minute without even giving up a tackle. It would be interesting if other teams try this against the Wolfpack knowing that getting the ball back seems just as likely as giving up 4 points.
The Wolfpack were once again able to show why their offence is so scary. Everyone on the Wolfpack roster is capable of scoring tries, and they can score tries from anywhere. The Wolfpack scored 12 tries from 9 different try scorers. In Darcy Lussick’s press conference to announce his signing it was brought up that props were beloved in Toronto. He jokingly said made a comment about how that is great but props don’t score many tries. That might be true, unless you play for the Wolfpack. Lussick pick up a try last week, but against Swinton it was Olsi Krasniqi who crossed over for the props. Krasniqi has dealt with some injury problems this season and was appearing in only his 6th game of the season so it was great to see him get his first try as a member of the Wolfpack. Adam Sidlow and Andrew Dixon also added tries for the forward pack.
The backline was their usual dominate self. Liam Kay and Gaz O’Brien were once again the stand outs in the game. Kay had hat trick to give him a team leading 15 tries on the season. O’Brien had 2 ties of his own and made a number of great defensive plays at the fullback position. Both men illustrated my point of the Wolfpack can score from anywhere on the field. Kay’s third try was the try of the match in my opinion. Kay defended an attacking kick from Swinton, caught the ball cleanly, made the chaser miss, and then made everyone else miss. Kay ran it back 60m untouched all from a play where the Wolfpack were back pedalling in defence before Kay touched the ball. O’Brien was able to create room out of nothing too. On O’Brien’s second try, the Swinton defence is in great position. O’Brien receives a pass from Josh McCrone and immediately runs into 3 Swinton defenders. Not only does Swinton fail to tackle O’Brien, but they can’t even wrap him up. O’Brien bounces off those 3 defenders, runs parallel to the goal line with a couple of head fakes and dummy passes, and Swinton is slow to react. All of a sudden, there is a massive hole and a try for O’Brien. I already mentioned Rawsthorne’s try off the kickoff, but I haven’t mentioned Blake Wallace’s try just 2 minutes later. Following a knock on the Wolfpack were awarded a scrum on their own 35. Bob Beswick hits Wallace with the pass out of the scrum and Wallace just takes off. Wallace puts one sidestep on Mark Nicholson and he’s gone! Wallace goes untouched for 65m and smiles the whole way there.
The Wolfpack are now coming off their best game of the year two weeks ago against Halifax and a perfect home debut. They will need to continue to ride this momentum this week as they prepare for arguably the biggest game in the Wolfpack’s young history. The Wolfpack head to the Wire to take on the red hot Warrington Wolves in round 6 of the Challenge Cup this week.
The Warrington Wolves continue to roll over everyone. The Wire picked up their 9th win in a row (8th SL win) when they defeated the defending champions Leeds Rhinos 33-22. Second-rower Harvey Levitt led the way with his first career hat trick and some of those tries were gorgeous.
A little dummy half, a filthy offload from Stefan Ratchford, and just some overall wonderful team play helped the Wire secure another win. Warrington still sits 3rd overall in the standings. They trail the Wigan Warriors by just 2 points. The Warriors are on an impressive run of their own. The Warriors handily defeated Salford Red Devils 30-0 to pick up their 6th win in a row. The last team to defeat the Warriors and Wolves? St. Helens, who remain the league’s top team.
The bottom 4 is becoming very interesting. The 4 remain the same; Catalans, Hull KR, Widnes, and Huddersfield. With Huddersfield’s win over Widnes, and Hull KR and Catalans losing all 4 teams are deadlocked at 3-10 records. Huddersfield has played one extra game where they have a draw so they move up to 9th place. However, despite essentially all being tied, it will be difficult for any of the teams to make a move out of the bottom 4. Hull KR’s loss this week came at the hands of Wakefield Trinity. Wakefield currently sits 7th overall with 12 points, 5 ahead of Huddersfield’s 7. In 8th it is with 10 points. Ultimately this means that it will take at least 2 weeks for anyone to move up in the standings. Although we are only halfway through the season, it is clear that the bottom 4 is taking shape. The best way to get out though is to beat the teams around you. Salford and Wakefield aren’t too far ahead but you need to close the gap when you have the chance. Hull KR was unable to do that this weekend.
The Castleford Tigers have released Garry Lo from his contract. Lo had a great showing for Papua New Guinea at the World Cup had 37 tries for the Sheffield Eagles last year. Lo has spent the majority of this season with the Sheffield Eagles where he racked up 4 tries in 6 games. Lo’s only appearance with the Tigers came in their 28-12 loss to the Wigan Warriors in round 12. Lo had a try in the game. Lo had initially signed 2 year contract and is being released just half a season in. Lo requested the release so he can deal with a personal matter. Lo has been released to in part due to a police investigation.
There were some big top 4 ramifications this week as the schedule maker probably deserves a medal for this upcoming stretch. Toulouse vs Featherstone and London vs Leigh were the games that highlighted the Championship this week. The Wolfpack playing last place Swinton left them pretty safe at the top but the top 4 picture is now really interesting. Toulouse defeated Featherstone 36-10 which brings them to a tie for second in the standings. Leigh continued their rise up the standings with a 40-30 win over London. Leigh and London are now tied for the final spot. The crazy thing is that these tight races are going to be intense in the coming weeks. This week is the next Challenge Cup round, so the 5 teams get a break from each other. After the Cup, it gets very interesting. Round 14 features Toronto vs Toulouse and Featherstone vs Leigh. Round 15 is the Summer Bash which will feature Toronto vs Leigh and Toulouse vs London. So we have effectively ended up with 3 straight weeks of all the top teams playing each other and the standings could look very different in a month. The most entertaining competition in rugby league (yeah I said it) is about to get a lot better.
Josh Addo-Carr had one of the best individual games of the season this week against St. George Illawarra Dragons. Unfortunately for Addo-Carr it was in a losing effort as the Dragons defeated the Melbourne Storm 34-14. Addo-Carr picked up all three tries for the Storm. He also had a try taken away after Melbourne was given a penalty off the play the ball leading up the try. It was a very controversial call and completely changed the outcome of the game. It also would have been the play of the week thanks to a ridiculous Billy Slater offload, but it didn’t count so it won’t be. Regardless, Addo-Carr dropped some impressive stats. To go along with his 3 tries, Addo-Carr ran for 198m (38 after contact), with 5 line breaks, 6 broken tackles (hence 38m after contact), and 21 pass receptions. Again, all in a losing effort.
Have North Queensland Cowboys finally begun to head in the right direction? It would appear so as they put together a very convincing win over the Penrith Panthers. Cowboys played their best game of the year in their 26-20 victory. The great thing for the Cowboys is that their best players were their best players. Michael Morgan and Jonathan Thurston each had tries in the game. Thurston was the true difference maker though. He went 3/4 on conversions and 2/2 on penalties. His combined 83% success rate ended up being the difference in a game where each team scored 4 tries. On the other side James Maloney was 2/4 on conversions and was never given a chance for a penalty. Thurston’s kicking allowed the Cowboys to seal the win. The win clearly puts the Cowboys back into a playoff spot thanks in part to how tight the standings are.
After round 9 exactly 0 points separates the 4th place Melbourne Storm and the 10th place Newcastle Knights. That is 7 teams deadlocked at 5-4-0 with only points differential left to decide their place. This is great news for teams that have struggled in the first third of the season. A team like Canberra Raiders may not be all that badly off. Canberra have struggled to start the year but have now won 4 of their last 5 and are just 2 points back of the pack. Despite their below .500 record, Canberra actually boasts a +15 points differential. Ultimately this means if they can pick up a win next week against Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks, they could leapfrog a number of teams. This goes for everyone sitting below 4th. Sting together a few wins and the outlook on your season may be very different by the time we hit the halfway mark.
Play of the Week
To set the scene we revisit the Leeds vs Warrington game. It’s late in the game, Warrington is up 27-22 and another score would put the game away. Now have you ever wondered how many people it takes to stop Ben Murdoch-Masila?
Well the answer is more than 3! This is basically the rugby league equivalent to a poster dunk. Murdoch-Masila take the ball in full flight, and with no regard for the safety, pride, or general well-being of that man in front of him, he lowers his shoulder and goes straight true the Leeds defence. I also kind of like how he proceeds to begin celebrating while still standing over the last defender! What a way to seal the victory!