Rugby·Analysis

Turn the page: Toronto Wolfpack focused on Super League promotion

In 2017, the Toronto Wolfpack set out a five-year plan to earn its way into Super League. The bold ambition was almost realized in less than half that time, before a heartbreaking loss in the "Million Pound Game" at the end of last season. As Nigel Reed writes, that setback will ultimately serve the club well.

Franchise writing a new chapter after heartbreaking loss in last season's 'Million Pound Game'

Toronto Wolfpack player Gareth O'Brien eludes a tackle by Rochdale Hornets player Scott Moore. The Wolfpack are undefeated in their first two matches in their third season of existence, but the Widnes Vikings will provide a stiff test on Sunday. (Photo courtesy Toronto Wolfpack)

No licking of wounds. No wailing and gnashing of teeth. No resting on laurels.

The page had to be turned with new faces on board and new goals set. Thus far, the Toronto Wolfpack are delivering.

At this point, it doesn't much matter whether Canada's first transatlantic sports franchise was unlucky or under prepared to make the leap to Super League – and join Rugby League's elite.

If it seems too good to be true, it usually is. In 2017, the Wolfpack set out a five-year plan to earn its way into Super League. The bold ambition was almost realized in less than half that time. I believe, ultimately, the setback will serve the club well.

Newcomers are always viewed with a certain amount of suspicion. Newcomers with deep pockets engender a mixture of excitement and envy from their opponents. The Wolfpack have survived the initial skepticism and garnered respect both on and off the field.    

It has, cleverly, attempted to spread the gospel. Not just about its own team but about rugby in general. It has embraced both codes of the sport – a notion that not so long ago, would have been frowned upon from a great height.

Every week of course there are points to be won, but the sport in general needs to establish a firm foothold in North America. The Wolfpack have recognized it is, for the time being, a small fish in a very big pond dominated by the so-called Big Four leagues. It is therefore doing its bit to raise rugby's profile in a bid to attract new, loyal, long-term fans.

WATCH | Highlights from the 2018 Million Pound Game:

The Toronto Wolfpack will not be headed to Super League after a 4-2 loss to the London Broncos. 3:40

The quickest way to do that is to win something. And the quickest way to win something is to be professional in all departments – players, coaches, fan experience, sponsorship and media relations just to name a few.

Losing the "Million Pound Game" has entered Wolfpack folklore as part of an ever-evolving narrative. In years to come, as memories fade, it'll be talked about with fondness over a few Friday night beers in pubs across Toronto and London.

That was then; this is now. Fast-forward four months from the heartbreaking near miss, and the Wolfpack are up and running in season three. There's a new coach, new players and a new expectation from fans who have now ridden the emotional rollercoaster for a couple of years.   

Paul Rowley took the team as far as he could. He enjoyed two seasons of almost unceasing success, but a new voice was necessary. Enter Brian McDermott – a coach who's been there, done that, and is now hungry for more.

McDermott, like Rowley before him, has earned his stripes as both player and coach. "Big Mac" enjoyed a decorated playing career with the Bradford Bulls, and transformed that winning strategy as coach of the Leeds Rhinos. His credentials are impeccable, but McDermott must now embrace the new challenge of keeping his roster of transatlantic commuters fresh and battle ready at all times.

That roster has seen a number of significant changes. A rash of retirements combined with the departures of winger Jonny Pownall and loose-forward Jack Bussey have forced the Wolfpack to unearth quality replacements. To date there are six new signings and while it's too early to assess their potential contributions, Samoan centre Ricky Leutele has already caught the eye.

So far, so good for Big Mac and Co. They've played and won their opening two games. York gave them a real battle, before they ran riot in Rochdale. That's all anyone could ask in the early days of a new campaign.

WATCH | Wolfpack winger Matty Russell light it up against the Hornets:

Matty Russell led the way with 4 tries on the afternoon, as the Toronto Wolfpack rolled over the Rochdale Hornets 58-6. 1:13

Perhaps the biggest test yet awaits this coming weekend. Widnes, a proud club with a storied history, is looking to reassert itself. The Vikings, like Toronto, have won their first two games following relegation from Super League, so something has to give on Saturday (12 p.m. ET, CBCSports.ca).

A new Wolfpack chapter will write itself in the coming months. There are no guaranteed happy endings in this book, but I, for one, would not be a bit surprised if 2019 does not produce another cliffhanging climax.

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