The Toronto Wolfpack dominated the 2018 Betfred Championship season. After 23 games they topped the tables with a 20-2-1 record and 41 points. Then they made their way to the Super 8 Qualifiers to try to earn a spot in Super League for 2019. The Wolfpack went 5-2-0 in the Qualifiers. Their 5 wins included defeating Super League side Widnes Vikings and a thrilling 17-16 win over the Leeds Rhinos in the final round to keep their Super League dreams alive. Unfortunately, the Salford Red Devils, Leeds Rhinos, and Hull KR all finished 5-2-0 as well. Due to their point differential, Toronto finished 4th overall, one spot shy of automatic promotion. However, they earned the right to host the London Broncos in the £1 Million Game. The £1 Million Pound game was a physical, defensive, and tightly contested match. Not a single try was scored. The boot of Jarrod Sammut propelled the Broncos to Super League with 2 penalty goals as the Broncos won 4-2. A spectacular season for the Wolfpack ended in heartbreaking fashion.
Now the Wolfpack set their sights on 2019 and another chance to move up to Super League. The Wolfpack dominated last year’s Championship, but have they done enough in the offseason to ensure their promotion this year?
The New Boss
The biggest change to the Toronto Wolfpack this offseason was the announcement of a new head coach. After guiding the Wolfpack through their first two seasons Paul Rowley will not be returning in 2019. Rowley had an impressive 49-8-2 record over two seasons with the Wolfpack and helped to assemble the team’s original roster. Despite his success, the Wolfpack and Rowley decided to mutually part ways in November. Of course you do not make a move like this without having someone in mind.
The Leeds Rhinos are the most successful Super League team of the last 15 years. Brian McDermott had been their coach since 2011. McDermott led Leeds to 4 Super League Championships (2011, 2012, 2015, 2017), 2 Challenge Cups (2014, 2015) and 1 World Club Challenge (2012). McDermott's biggest accomplishment with Leeds came during the 2015 season. In 2015 Leeds joined the 2003 Bradford Bulls and 2006 St Helens and became just the 3rd team in the Super League era to win the Treble. The Treble is awarded to a team that wins the League Leaders Shield, the Challenge Cup, and the Super League Grand Final. Essentially, you win every trophy you possibly can within the RFL. McDermott truly had an incredible run with the Rhinos. Unfortunately, that degree of success also raises the standard. 2018 was a rough year for Leeds. Midway through their season they found themselves with a 7 game losing streak. McDermott was fired after the 7th loss and the Rhinos ultimately ended up competing with the Wolfpack for a spot in 2019 Super League.
Brian McDermott now becomes the 2nd head coach in Toronto Wolfpack history. Much like in Leeds, the standards will be incredibly high in Toronto. The roster is loaded with talent and fans have come to expect dominating performances from the team. 2019 will be no different and expectations for this team will be incredibly high. Anything short of promotion to Super League will be considered a failure. However, if there is any man that can guide the Wolfpack to Super League it is the most successful coach of the decade.
The biggest knock against the Wolfpack under Paul Rowley was the team’s discipline. The Wolfpack did take a lot of penalties in their first 2 seasons. Fortunately, their skill level being so much higher than the majority of their opponents never really allowed the lack of discipline to hurt them. However, when the quality of competition increased, the penalties hurt badly. The Challenge Cup match against Warrington was the prime example last year. The Wolfpack shot themselves in the foot that and just kept making a bad situation worse. Ultimately, Toronto lost the £1 Million Pound Game after giving up 2 penalties in Sammut’s range (Andy Ackers also had a yellow card in the match). If McDermott can correct the Wolfpack’s Achilles Heel than a well disciplined Wolfpack side will be absolutely terrifying in 2019.
The New Players
The Toronto Wolfpack also made some big additions to the roster. Cory Paterson, Richard Whiting, and James Laithwaite have all retired. Jack Bussey, Jonny Pownall, and Jack Buchanan have all found new clubs. Toronto made several new signings in order to fill the void left by these players. Making their Wolfpack debut in 2019 will be centre Ricky Leutele, scrumhalf Joe Mellor, prop Gadwin Springer, and a trio of second rowers: Jon Wilkin, Bodene Thompson, and Tom Olbison. All 6 of these players have spent a considerable amount of time in either Super League or the NRL.
The biggest name of the new acquisitions is Jon Wilkin. Wilkin is a veteran of over 400 Super League games and he was part of the 2006 St Helens team that won the Treble. In addition to the Treble Wilkin has won the Grand Final in 2002 and 2014, the Challenge Cup in 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008, and the World Club Challenge in 2007. Wilkin has had a historic career and will be looking to add to that legacy with the Wolfpack.
Leutele joins the Wolfpack from the Cronulla Sharks in the NRL. Leutele has racked up 30 tries in 128 NRL games. He is most famous for making the game ending tackle that clinched the Sharks their first ever Grand Final win in 2016. Mellor has 62 tries in 167 Super League games primarily with Widnes Vikings. Mellor is a scrum half and will add a dynamic kicking element to the Wolfpack’s all around game. Olbison will also be joining the Wolfpack from Widnes. Olbison is another addition with a wealth of experience. He played for the Bradford Bulls prior to Widnes and between the two has suited up in 199 Super League games. Hailing from New Zealand, Thompson is has 143 NRL games under his belt. Thompson has split his time between Gold Coast Titans, Wests Tigers, and the New Zealand Warriors. He came to Europe for the 2018 season and primarily played for the Leigh Centurions before joining the Warrington Wolves for their Super 8s run where they lost the Grand Final to the Wigan Warriors. Last but not least, Springer will bring his tough, physical style of play to Toronto’s forward pack. Springer, played for the Castleford Tigers in 2018, is known around Super League as a player that deals out punishing hits on defense. If you try to tackle him, it will probably hurt you more. Springer plays a style of rugby league that has proven to be very popular with the Wolfpack fanbase. He will be a welcome addition ad should make a big impact alongside Ashton Sims.
Ultimately, these players are better than the Championship. Their skill sets belong in competitions like Super League and the NRL. Of course, the same can be said for Liam Kay, Gaz O’Brien, Josh McCrone, and many other Wolfpack players. With this roster there really is no reason why they should not top the Championship table again this year. The question will be if they can finish it off in the playoffs?
The New Structure
The biggest reason that I would bet on the Wolfpack to earn promotion to Super League is the new league structure. The RFL has abandoned the Super 8 format for a more traditional promotion-relegation format. With that change comes a new playoff structure as well. Personally, I believe that the new structure greatly benefits the Wolfpack. The Super 8 qualifiers reset the 4 Championship sides to even. The Wolfpack got no advantage in the Super 8s for finishing 1st overall. That will change this year. With 5 teams making the playoffs, the new league structure will grant the the team that tops the Championship table a first round bye. As a further bonus, if the first place team loses their game in round 2(semi-final) they will not be eliminated and get another chance in the Preliminary Final. If they win their Round 2 game they earn another bye and go straight to the Final. In other words, the 1st place team only has to win 2 playoff games to earn promotion. The 2nd and 3rd place teams have to win 3 and the 4th and 5th place teams will need to win 4. The Wolfpack suffered a number of injuries during the Qualifiers last year. Most notably Liam Kay, who broke his ankle in the opening game against Halifax. Possibly only playing 2 games and having a week off to recover between games will be a huge advantage to the 1st place team.
The 1st overall team is going to be the Toronto Wolfpack. The Wolfpack dominated the Championship in 2018 before falling just short in the £1 Million Game. They have re tooled for the 2019 season. Brian McDermott, the most successful coach of the last decade, is now at the helm. The new signings are all upgrades at their respective positions and Liam Kay’s ankle isn’t broken anymore. All the signs are pointing a promotion to Super League this year. Unfortunately for the Wolfpack, having the best team on paper doesn’t matter. That was a lesson they learned in 2018. Toronto look positioned to dominate the Championship again in 2019. Hopefully, instead of the year ending in heartbreak, it will end with a massive party in Lamport’s beer garden.
The Toronto Wolfpack open the 2019 Championship season against the York City Knights. Kickoff is Sunday February 3rd, 2019 at 10am EST.