ANDREW MARMONT charts arguably the most remarkable story of rugby league expansion in recent times ahead of the Toronto Wolfpack’s home debut in the latest instalment of League Passport.
It’s a busy time for North American sport. The National Hockey and Basketball Leagues are in playoff mode. Major League Baseball is running. But a little-known rugby league team are looking to make a huge impact from small beginnings this weekend.
Lamport Stadium has a capacity of 9,600 people. Compared to the plush surroundings of Ricoh Coliseum or the Rogers Centre, it pales in significance. It holds local junior hockey teams and University field hockey games. It’s as unglamorous as a stadium could be.
But it’s a perfect fit for the Toronto Wolfpack, who play their first match in Canada on Saturday against Oxford RLFC. Much has been written about their exploits in England, including matching it with Super League teams like Hull and Salford. But little has been said in Toronto.
— CBC Sports (@cbcsports) May 4, 2017
Rugby league is virtually unknown in Canada.
Neil Davidson has covered sport for 32 years but hadn’t written a story about rugby league until the Wolfpack arrived. It shows how the game has a giant hill to climb if they are to capture the hearts and cash of a sports-loving city. But Davidson is excited about watching the team up close and thinks Canadians may warm to the game.
“I think people will enjoy the sport when they see it,” he says.
“It has a lot to offer: big hits and fast men. But there is a big gap regarding education of the sport.”
Wolfpack CEO Eric Perez is quietly confident of a good turnout. He’d be happy with a crowd of 3,000. They’ve decided to serve local craft beers to make it appealing (and unique) for any curious punter.
— Wolfin Around (@wolfinaroundto) May 3, 2017
Where the Toronto Blue Jays, Maple Leafs and Raptors could serve Heineken and Stella Artois, niche beverages seem an apt way to sell the oddity of professional rugby league in this town.
The Wolfpack have started their season very strongly. They’ve pushed Super League sides Hull and Salford and demolished those in their division (the third tier of English Rugby League, League 1).
Would their winning start be attractive for Toronto sports fans? Do they like winners, like people in Melbourne?
“I’d say the Canadian sporting fan can be fair-weather. Baseball is successful and can draw great crowds. The Maple Leafs celebrated their 50th anniversary of winning the Stanley Cup (the National Hockey League competition).
“I think winning will help the Wolfpack. They’ve been able to showcase their skills.”
Davidson has also noticed the Wolfpack’s expansive gameplay. They play an entertaining game and aren’t afraid to attack.
An interesting element to their match this weekend is most Wolfpack players have never set foot in Canada. Their players have taken personal odysseys to get there: England, America, Africa, Wales, Tonga, Samoa, Australia, Jamaica and Ireland. It’s a team of global talent.
Former NRL cult hero and Kiwi international Fuifui Moimoi is a notable headline attraction for the fledgling club, while they also have a couple of Canadian internationals – Rhys Jacks and Tom Dempsey – plus some younger locals as development players.
— Toronto Wolfpack (@TOwolfpack) April 23, 2017
Even though they train and play primarily in England, the Wolfpack has been able to generate a social media presence very quickly. They have more than 14,000 Twitter followers and 16,000 Facebook fans.
Can the Wolfpack cut through all the noise – and other teams – competing for Toronto sports fans’ attention?
“It’s been a good start both on and off the field. It will be interesting to see how they go at home.”
CBC Sports are broadcasting the game.
— Oxford Rugby League (@Oxford_RL) May 4, 2017