Life hasn’t changed much for Craig Hall since joining rugby league’s first transatlantic team. The Toronto Wolfpack captain still lives in his Yorkshire home and has yet to set foot in Canada.
But he knows the sport will be watching as the fledgling Wolfpack kick off play against the London Skolars in England’s third tier of rugby league on Saturday.
The Wolfpack, a fully professional outfit playing against semi-pro sides in the Kingstone Press League 1, are bidding to win promotion and ultimately make the elite Super League.
“There’s a lot of potential in the squad,” said Hall. “This year everyone’s going to be up for playing us, being the only full-time team.
“I definitely think we’re better than the league we’re in,” he added. “So we’ll just have to get this year out of the way, hopefully progress to the (second-tier) Championship next year and then see how we progress after that.”
Toronto is hoping to follow in the footsteps of Toulouse Olympique XIII, a French pro team that returned to the English league last season and won promotion to the second tier after going 13-0-1 and winning the League 1 playoff final.
The Skolars, who finished eighth in the league last season with an 8-6-0 record, are typical of the opposition Toronto will face this year. They all have day jobs â€” occupations range from plumbers and electricians to teachers and civil engineers.
The London team was founded in 1995, initially for post-graduate students who wanted to continue playing rugby league â€” which is more popular in the north of England. Despite their name, the rugby-playing students could spell â€” Skolars came from a brief partnership with Skol.
The 29-year-old Hall started with Hull FC’s academy, making his first-team debut in 2007. He moved to crosstown rival Hull Kingston Rovers in 2011 and Wakefield in 2015.
Wolfpack coach Paul Rowley, a former England hooker, has long been an admirer of Hall and wanted to acquire him during his days as coach of the Leigh Centurions. “It just wasn’t the right time to move where he was,” said Hall.
The Toronto adventure appealed, however, especially after speaking to Rowley and Wolfpack director of rugby Brian Noble, a former successful player and coach.
“I was willing to buy in,” said Hall.
“Never been to Canada,” he added. “That’s something else that obviously was a pull towards signing (with Toronto) â€” seeing some of the world.”
Hall and fellow back Liam Kay (Leigh) were Toronto’s first signings.
Playing for the transatlantic team is a bit of an adventure, Hall agreed.
“Well not at the minute, because we haven’t been anywhere,” he added with a laugh. “But as soon as we start making our way over (to Canada) it will be something different.”
He’s not getting on a plane just yet. Toronto plays its first five league games on the road before opening at home May 6 against Oxford RLFC.
It’s back to England for a one-off game in Newcastle before two games in Toronto, two on the road and four more in Toronto.
Hall isn’t quite sure where he’ll be living in Toronto.
“I think they’re more or less trying to sort it now … The club are on to it.”
Hall has the best of both worlds these days. Toronto’s first game, an exhibition affair at Hull’s KCOM Stadium, was five minutes from his home and the Wolfpack’s Yorkshire training base is an hour’s drive away.
The Wolfpack have been in training since November and have played just two matches â€” the 26-20 exhibition loss to Hull FC on Jan. 22 and a 14-6 win over amateur side Siddal in Ladbrokes Challenge Cup play last weekend.
Hall came in off the bench in the second half against Siddal. He was slated to start but a clash of heads in warmup left him with a swollen eye. He got the OK to play in the second half after the eye settled down.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press