Rugby·Preview

Wolfpack look to win promotion, change face of rugby league

England international Jon Wilkin will put his body on the line one more time Saturday when the Toronto Wolfpack host the upstart Featherstone Rovers in the Million Pound Game. The transatlantic team was beaten in the promotion showdown last year, losing 4-2 to London Broncos in a tense contest.

Toronto club to host Million Pound Game at 2:30 p.m. ET live on CBCSports.ca

Toronto Wolfpack player Joe Mellor is seen in action against the Toulouse Olympique in Toronto in September. Toronto is hosting the Million Pound Game on Saturday. (Mathew Tsang/Canadian Press)

Having endured 17 surgeries during a distinguished career, veteran Toronto Wolfpack forward Jon Wilkin knows all about the physical toll of playing rugby league for a living.

"Both hands, both knees, hips, shoulder, neck, fingers, thumbs, everything," said Wilkin, who is currently playing through a bicep injury. "That's the game."

The England international will put his body on the line one more time Saturday when the Wolfpack host the upstart Featherstone Rovers in the Million Pound Game. The transatlantic team was beaten in the promotion showdown last year, losing 4-2 to London Broncos in a tense contest.

Now the third-year Wolfpack, who won 27 of 28 games in the second-tier Betfred Championship this season, are one win from replacing the relegated Broncos in the 12-team Super League.

For Toronto coach Brian McDermott, a former British Royal Marine who has won everything the Super League has to offer during his coaching days with Leeds Rhinos, Saturday's game is not just a promotion battle. It's a chance to change rugby league's landscape.

He believes his sport has to spread to succeed. Having Toronto in the elite Super League, which currently consists of 11 English and one French team, would just be a start.

WATCH | Road to the Million Pound Game:

Watch highlights from Toronto's wins that led them to Saturday's Million Pound Game, where they can earn promotion to the Betfred Super League. 1:14

"If it's still the same names competing for a final, I'll guarantee you this — we'll have no new investment, we won't have any bigger TV deal and I predict we'll have less people watching the game in five, 10 years time if the same teams are competing for the finals," he said.

"And if one of those names headed to a final is a Toronto or a Barcelona or a Toulouse or a New York, that's how the game would grow. So on that level, I think this game is huge. It's huge."

Traditionally, rugby league has taken a back seat to rugby union other than in the north of England and Australia, with France and New Zealand also furnishing teams.

The 13-man code combines beauty and brutality. While it features big men operating as ball-carrying battering rams, it also showcases flowing attacks with dummy runners looking to confuse defenders.

And rugby league's suffocating defence — ball-carriers are routinely swallowed up and put down painfully by a swarm of tacklers — has seeped into rugby union with league coaches switching codes to share their expertise.

The Wolfpack use big men like Ashton Sims and Darcy Lussick to soften up the defence. Backs like captain Josh McCrone and Joe Mellor pull the offensive strings, looking to get the ball to the likes of Ricky Leutele and Matty Russell on one flank and Chase Stanley and Liam Kay on the other.

McCrone and Mellor wield their kicking boots like scalpels, carving open defences with grubber kicks or putting defenders under pressure with towering moonshots.

WATCH | Wolfpack secure Grand Final spot with win over Olympique: 

Toronto beats Toulouse 40-24,  move within one win of promotion to the top-tier Super League. 1:46

The Wolfpack combine a sturdy defence with a well-armed offence.

Leutele, a muscular Australian centre who won the NRL title in Australia with the Cronulla Sharks in 2016, has paved the way for Russell's team-tying 27 tries this season, carving through opposition defenders.

On the other side, Stanley is a sleek New Zealand international who can dance his way around a tackler.

Russell and Kay, who share the team try record, are pure finishers who don't need much room to hurl themselves over the goal-line like flying missiles.

Fullback Gareth O'Brien, named player of the year in the Championship, serves as both the last line of defence and extra attacker. A smooth runner, O'Brien is not afraid to sacrifice his slender body for the cause.

Featherstone is the upstart guest at this promotion party.

The lowest-ranked of the five teams to make the playoffs, the Featherstone part-timers have scored three straight upset wins on the road — defeating No. 4 Leigh Centurions (34-18), No. 3 York City Knights (30-4) and No. 2 Toulouse Olympique (36-12).

Toronto won two earlier meetings with Featherstone this season but both were close games — 23-14 at Featherstone in April and 22-18 in July in Toronto.

Featherstone in rare company

Featherstone is just one of three teams to ever win in Toronto, defeating the Wolfpack 30-12 in the 2018 regular-season finale. Toronto's career home record in the regular season and playoffs is a remarkable 33-3-0.

Featherstone's last brush this close with promotion was in 1998 when it lost 24-22 to Wakefield Trinity.

The Wolfpack enter Saturday's showdown having won 22 straight games since a 46-16 loss in Toulouse on March 9. Featherstone has won three in a row and seven of its last nine since the July loss in Toronto.

Toronto expects a bumper crowd at Lamport Stadium. The current Wolfpack record is 9,562 — the highest single-game attendance for any Championship game — set during the April home opener against Swinton.

For the 35-year-old Wilkin, Saturday's game is a chance to return to the Super League, where he spent 16 seasons with St. Helens. And while he did not play in last year's Million Pound Game, he suffered through it from a distance.

"I signed on the premise they were going to be in Super League. I think that's a lesson in itself," he said. "We are in the game we want to be in, for sure. But we're well aware of the implications of succumbing to the pressure and the consequences of not doing well in the game.

"We've got to perform as we've done all year and expect Featherstone at their best. We're excited to do that. It's a real privilege to be in the Grand Final, to play against a historic club like Featherstone."