TORONTO â€” There were smiles in the rain Thursday as the Toronto Wolfpack trained in advance of their weekend home opener.
After winning seven of eight competitive matches in England, rugby league’s first transatlantic team has embarked on the next step on its remarkable adventure â€” introducing the sport to Canada.
It starts Saturday against Oxford RLFC (2-2-0) with Wolfpack officials hoping that heavy rain forecast for the next couple of days will have dissipated by the mid-afternoon kickoff at Lamport Stadium.
The wet stuff is nothing new to a squad based in the north of England, although coach Paul Rowley tried to convince the media of the weather delights of Manchester. Rowley says his squad, which arrived Tuesday, is already enjoying Toronto.
“The most important people in all of this are the players and they’re absolutely loving their experience,” said the 42-year-old Rowley, a former England hooker. “It’s more than they could have ever imagined and that pleases me because I’m responsible for those guys and (for) bringing them to Canada.
“It’s a wonderful city. What’s not to love? So they’re having a good time but working hard as well and we’re getting serious now.”
Not to be confused with 15-man rugby union, rugby league is the lesser-known 13-man version of the game. It’s a sport that showcases both brutal hits and elegant runs.
“There’ll be blood, there’ll be tears, there’ll be beauty,” said Rowley. “So you’ve got a bit of everything. And so I’m told, the Canadians, they don’t mind a bit of biff and we’ll provide a little bit for them.”
The brainchild of team CEO Eric Perez, the Wolfpack have started life in the third tier of English rugby league with the hope of winning promotion to the second-tier Championship and then the elite Super League.
So far, so good.
The fully professional Wolfpack have won all five matches in the Kingstone Press League 1, outscoring their semi-pro opposition 310-37. Toronto also dispatched the London Broncos, a Championship side, 30-26 in the knockout Ladbrokes Challenge Cup competition before falling 29-22 to the Salford Red Devils, who stand third in the Super League â€” two divisions and 22 places ahead of the Wolfpack.
The inaugural trip to Toronto is a short one. After Saturday’s game, the Wolfpack head home for a May 12 match at the Newcastle Thunder.
Then it’s two games in Toronto, two on the other side of the Atlantic, four in Toronto and so on.
The Wolfpack hope to bring the players’ families over for some of the longer stops in town. In the meantime, players are putting kids to bed via FaceTime.
Team medical staff have consulted their counterparts with the England rugby sevens team, which plays around the globe, for travel trips. “We’ve left no stone unturned,” said Rowley.
In Toronto, the players are staying at what used to be the 2015 Pan Am Games athletes village, now a residence for George Brown College.
Captain Craig Hall, a statuesque six-foot-four back who previously played for Hull FC, Hull Kingston Rovers and Wakefield Trinity, says the Wolfpack are already a tight-knit group. “It’s probably been the best atmosphere I’ve had with a team since I’ve played.”
The Wolfpack players are fully invested, with many taking a pay cut for the chance to join a franchise with vision and big dreams on the ground level.
Visiting teams will stay at York University, with the Wolfpack paying for their travel and housing costs until Toronto makes the Super League. A sponsorship with Air Transat will help ease that burden.
Perez expects to make the top-flight in three years.
“And I hope within five years, we have a parade down Yonge Street with the Super League trophy,” he said.
There have been some hiccups on this opening trip. Marquee props Fuifui Moimoi and Ryan Bailey, two of the team’s biggest names, will miss Saturday’s game due to visa red tape. Adam Sidlow and Jake Emmitt are expected to start in their place.
Loose forward Jack Bussey is serving a one-game suspension for a forearm/elbow strike. Second-rower James Laithwaite is out for an extended period after cracking a bone in his neck in the loss to Salford.
If it rains, Perez expects a crowd of 2,000 to 3,000 with 6,000 to 7,000 showing up if the sun shines. The tickets are all $16.99 plus tax.
They’ll get to see what Rowley calls “sexy rugby.” The Wolfpack love to throw the ball around on offence. On defence, they hit like a hammer.
For now, the Wolfpack home is 42-year-old Lamport Stadium, which has a capacity of 9,600. The team is trying to make it fan-friendly, offering local craft beer for example, but it’s a rudimentary venue with no cover and no frills.
Players will no doubt look forward to next season when new artificial turf is planned.
“It’s for the people,” Perez said of his team’s Toronto home. “This is a people’s team. We’re in the people’s stadium … As we move up in divisions, we will renovate the stadium.”
The scrappy Wolfpack image drew the attention of TekSavvy, an Internet provider based in Chatham, Ont., that is sponsoring the home opener and the player of the game award.
“We take on Rogers and Bell. (The Wolfpack) are competing against the teams of Rogers and MLSE,” said Fraser McNaught, TekSavvy’s vice-president of marketing.
Saturday marks the culmination of seven years work for Perez, a local boy with a big dream.
“I’m just hoping it doesn’t rain too hard, everyone enjoys it as much as I do and that nobody gets injured,” said Perez.
NOTE: Salford’s Justin Carney has been banned eight games and fined 300 pounds ($535) after pleading guilty to racially abusing Bailey.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press