Rugby·Analysis

Popularity of Wolfpack paves way for new rugby tournament

The inaugural Americas Nines Championship will take place on May 18th at the Toronto Wolfpack's home Lamport Stadium. It is being billed as an international competition featuring Canada, the USA, Jamaica and a team of emerging players collectively competing as the Latin Heat.

Organizers of 4-team event in Toronto hoping to deliver fans the 'real thing'

Toronto Wolfpack player Darcy Lussick, left, and former teammate Cory Paterson sign autographs for fans after a match at Lamport Stadium in Toronto last season. Lamport will be the site of the inaugural Americas Nines Championship on May 18th. (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. Everyone knows that.

I know that I, and probably you, have attended banquets and fundraisers where 'Elvis' is the star attraction. Tribute acts are much in demand. Most look like The King; some even sound like him when they step up to the microphone.

We know it isn't really him of course. However, for the sake of entertainment we are prepared to suspend belief and enjoy this version of Elvis, all sequins, sunglasses and sideburns, at the height of his Vegas years.

One way or another, it is all about giving the public what it wants. Keeping the customer satisfied is paramount — even if it is merely an illusion.

The world of sport is no different. A full stadium looks impressive on TV and gives both the paying spectator and the armchair viewer validation that this is an event worth watching.

Vancouver was the place to be last weekend. Tens of thousands turned up over the two days in party mode. The HSBC Canada Sevens was a triumph on and off the field. Bishops, nuns, Mounties, bananas, and pigs were just a few of the more unusual fancy dress costumes on display.

Canada's Phil Berna (left) runs the ball against Australia's Michael Wells during the Challenge Trophy final at the World Rugby Sevens Series action in Vancouver earlier this month. The tournament was a triumph on and off the field as thousands of fans turned up over the two days in party mode (THE CANADIAN PRESS)

It is no surprise World Rugby has sanctioned a four-year extension to the annual rugby festival. The players love the atmosphere, the fans come from far and wide to cheer on their teams and the province, which owns BC Place, makes a handsome profit.

In just four years, Vancouver has become the hub of Canadian rugby. Moreover, it has created its own unique identity where 'real' rugby aficionados are happy to rub shoulders with the revelers. This is a tournament where there is zero tolerance for rugby snobbery.

It works in Vancouver, so why not elsewhere in Canada?

Soon we will find out. In Toronto, they have been watching and planning. Now, the Wolfpack have thrown their support behind a new rugby league event scheduled for the Spring.

Recipe for success?

The inaugural Americas Nines Championship will take place on May 18th at the Wolfpack's home Lamport Stadium (a.k.a. Den). It is being billed as an international competition featuring Canada, the USA, Jamaica and a team of emerging players collectively competing as the Latin Heat.

It will be a single-day event with teams of nine playing matches of two, nine-minute halves. Conversion attempts will be drop kicks, teams scoring a try will then re-start from centre field, and there will be rolling replacements.

Does it sound somewhat familiar? If you were watching in Vancouver, it should.

What are the organizers trying to achieve? For a start, they want to build on the popularity of the Wolfpack who will be in England that weekend, taking part in their own festival — the Summer Bash (that's right — a Summer Bash in May).

The Wolfpack will have played only a couple of League matches in Toronto by then, so it is important to keep the pot warm until they return for an extended period of home games from mid-June onward.

A chance to see Canadians in action

It will also give Canadian fans a rare chance to see Canadians on the field. The Wolverines are Canada's national Rugby league team and have competed internationally since 2010. The Wolfpack are drawing the crowds but don't have a single Canadian on their roster.

Canada's natural rivals are the USA Hawks. The two have locked horns on a semi-regular basis in recent years for the Colonial Cup, but both may be playing catch up to the Jamaicans. The Reggae Warriors have already qualified for the next World Cup two years hence.

It may also serve as an exciting introduction to rugby league for those not yet committed. Short games, lots of scoring and a vibrant atmosphere could be just the ticket for families in the Toronto area.

Not to be misunderstood, the Americas Nines is no Canada Sevens. Heck, it hasn't even started yet. But, like Elvis, with a little imagination, it could do a passable impersonation of the real thing.

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