EVEN BY the bizarre standards of rugby league innovation, the prospect of a new Canadian team playing in the English-based League One seems far fetched.
Clubs from the UK’s lowest tier – including Hunslet Hawks – face a 7,000-mile round trip to play games in a country which has no tradition in the sport.
If sides in the heartlands of northern England are struggling financially and to pull in the crowds, what are the chances of Toronto Wolfpack becoming anything other than yet another failed attempt to expand the sport when they kick-off next season?
That’s the cynical view, but Toronto have a rich backer, big ambitions and some rock-solid rugby league knowledge behind them.
That is led by director of rugby Brian Noble, the former Great Britain and Bradford Bulls coach, who believes – while the new set-up is a challenge – all hurdles can be overcome.
“Where there’s a will there’s a way,” is Noble’s view.
He believes the time is right for the world’s first trans-atlantic rugby competition and it could be the start of big things for the code.
Noble said: “The world is becoming a whole lot smaller place. We recognise the dynamics of what Canada is all about; we can’t do our pre-season there so we will have to do that in the UK.
“We will play a block of matches over here and then we will have three-to-four week blocks when we’ll fly every team from the UK out to play us.
“It’s a simple structure. The new thing and the thing that surprises people is that it’s a bit of a long flight – it’s six hours one way and seven the other, but once you get your head around that it is not as difficult as it might seem.
“The tough job is for us and what we are trying to do in relation to building a home here [in the UK] and building a home in Toronto and selling the game.
“We’d like to be everybody’s second-favourite team over here, we would like people to watch us so we’ve got to win the hearts and minds of the public over here.
“I think the commitment from the Wolfpack to pay for everything is helping with that – and to not take any prize money as well. There is a lot to this and a heck of a lot of thought and professionalism has gone into it. I think it’s really important we support it as best we can and let’s suck it and see, but the bigger vision we have spoken about is it is helping the northern hemisphere and Super League over here find a new audience and new sponsors and new TV rights which will improve the finances for everybody.
“It is in everybody’s best interests for this to work.”
Noble is confident Toronto – whose first game will be a practice match at Hull in January – have the financial backing to make a success of what will be an expensive venture.
The club has a wealthy investor in Australian businessman David Argyle and Noble said: “It has extremely strong backers behind it.
“Everybody worries about the financial aspect, but if you see the financial commitment the owners have already made to the game and what they have already done in relation to hiring people and how much money has been spent, I think you’ll realise it’s is a pretty serious operation.”
Toronto will be based during their spells in England at the sports centre in Brighouse.
“That’s the home of Brighouse Rangers, who were one of the founder members of the Rugby League,” Noble pointed out.
“It is quite an interesting quirk on proceedings. What I want to really enforce is that we will be investing in the game over here as well.
“We are committed to helping the game and making sure when we are in League One we will have partnerships with all the League One clubs.
“If we are fortunate enough to jump the hurdles, wherever we go we have genuinely got aspirations for the game.”
The Wolfpack are starting at the bottom of the game in the semi-professional third tier. They have already built a powerful playing group with the latest signing being former Tongan international Fuifui Moimoi, who played more than 200 games in Australia’s NRL before spending two seasons with Leigh Centurions.
They are likely to prove too strong for their part-time opponents and the goal for Toronto’s debut season is promotion to the Championship, with Super League being the ultimate aim.
“We have got a strong squad for League One,” Noble accepted. “We are hopeful by the end of our recruitment a third of that squad will either be Canadian, American or Jamaican.
“We have trialled over 300 people from North America and Jamaica and we have brought 18 of them over to the UK for 12 days to train with our first team and get used to things and play a game [a win over Brighouse last weekend].
“We are hopeful we will sign three or four of those players. The reality is if League One clubs or Championship clubs – or even Super League clubs – are interested, there’s some good athletes coming across, so keep your eyes open.”
Noble has been a regular visitor to Canada and the United States since the Toronto idea was conceived.
“Part and parcel of my remit is to look at the bigger picture and see what needs doing and what doesn’t,” he said.
“There will be times when I am there and the team isn’t and times when I’m there and the team are.”
The big question is, will fans in Canada take to their new club and sport? Noble believes once they get a taste of rugby league they will be won over.
“I think we will have a sell-out by the time we come to kick-off in Lamport Stadium in Toronto,” he predicted.
“I think we are up to 8,000 pledges or season tickets, so that seems to indicate we will be pretty successful.
“I think the game should be excited by this. Sometimes it doesn’t work, I have been excited by a lot of things through my rugby league career and it hasn’t quite panned out, but I am confident there is an absolute will and desire and enthusiasm on this project for it to be not just a one-hit wonder, but for it to be sustainable and help the game in the long-term.”
Noble is an unashamed expansionist, convinced the only way for rugby league to have a healthy future is through growth into new geographical areas.
“I believe in the sports market today rugby league needs something new in the northern hemisphere,” he said.
“We are prepared to jump through the hoops and I think the more we can offer a new audience, as well as our traditional audience, then the better the game will be.”
Stadium: Wolfpack’s home games will be played at the 9,600-capacity Lamport Stadium in Toronto.
Fixtures: Toronto will play blocks of matches in the UK, followed by home games beginning in May.
UK base: Wolfpack will train in Brighouse, West Yorkshire, for pre-season and when they are playing in the UK.
Recruitment: A strong squad has already been assembled, with players signed from Super League - including Hull’s Richard Whiting and Craig Hall from Wakefield Trinity - and the Championship. Trials are also being held for players from Canada, the USA and Jamaica.
Travel to Canada: English teams will fly to Toronto on Thursdays, play on Saturday evenings and return the following day. It is understood Toronto will subsidise travel for their opponents.
Coverage: A local TV deal is being negotiated. All Wolfpack’s games will be broadcast in the UK on Premier Sports.
Interest: The club hope their first home game will be a sell-out and more than 5,000 season tickets have already been snapped up.
Finance: The club are backed by wealthy Australian businessman David Argyle and are self-funded.
Expertise: Coach Paul Rowley was a Championship-winning coach with Leigh Centurions. Director of rugby Brian Noble captained and coached Great Britain and is one of the most successful club bosses of the Super League era. Rugby player turned actor Adam Fogerty is also on Toronto’s board.