What's next for Toronto Wolfpack after 'outstanding' debut?
Rugby league squad preparing for upcoming season in 2nd tier
Lopsided scorelines, road games on the other side of the Atlantic and grown men dressed in wolf onesies.
It's all part of the Toronto Wolfpack's plan to one day reach the highest level of English rugby league.
The expansion team earned promotion to the second-tier Kingstone Press Championship with a game to spare and amassed League 1 accolades along the way, including player of the year honours for captain Craig Hall.
"Outstanding," the 29-year-old centre says. "I think we can build on lots of what we did this year."
So where does the team go from here? CEO Eric Perez hasn't been shy about his ambitions, but for now head coach Paul Rowley is focused on preparing his side for the rigours of the next level of rugby league.
"In my opinion it's harder to get out of the Championship than it is to stay in the Super League," Rowley says, referring to the top flight of England's Rugby Football League. "We'll need to be consistent week in and week out against a lot higher opposition."
"It's going to be very, very difficult, but it would not be worth the competition if it wasn't."
Adding size, star power to the roster
The team recently announced the signing of four high-calibre players, several of whom with experience playing in Australia's vaunted National Rugby League.
"I grew up watching the NRL, so Ashton Sims and Dave Taylor are definitely big names that I'm very, very excited to hopefully have a chance to play with," Canadian Quinn Ngawati says in reference to the two acclaimed forwards. The Wolfpack also brought in half back Josh McCrone and Albanian-born prop Olsi Krasniqui.
“There's clearly some crazy good things happening with rugby league in Toronto & I can’t wait to get there"<br>READ ➡️ <a href="https://t.co/sPpO6lviyO">https://t.co/sPpO6lviyO</a> <a href="https://t.co/Bxs6Hn9KtG">pic.twitter.com/Bxs6Hn9KtG</a>—@TOwolfpack
"It'll put a little more pressure on guys to perform because there's a lot more competition for spots," adds half back Rhys Jacks. "That's important, especially moving up a division."
While having players like Sims and "Coal Train" Taylor alongside the fearsome Fui Fui Moi Moi is an exciting prospect, Rowley's primary focus is adding depth to the squad.
"We've been running on a 22-man squad, which is ridiculously low," he says, atrributing the size to factors like budget constraints and injuries.
"We've already started recruiting, and we're looking to get to 28."
Passionate, devoted fan base
Rugby league can best be described as a niche version of a niche game, especially in a country inundated with professional sports like Canada. While global popularity skews towards the 15-a-side version — known as rugby union — the Wolfpack successfully cultivated a passionate, devoted fan base to fill the stands at Lamport Stadium in Toronto's Liberty Village neighbourhood.
"The crowd exceed our expectations," says Jacks, an Australian-born player who represents Team Canada by claiming heritage through his grandfather. "We thought we'd have some big crowds because we were told that. But yeah, it's been absolutely unreal."
The team's largest home attendance this season was 8,456 (9,600 is the capcity) with many fans taking up residence in the beer garden behind one of the end zones. Maintaining that fan base despite long spells in England for away games is one of the things that impressed rugby union fan Karen Gasbarino-Knutt this summer.
"They can't be going off for six weeks at a time without a great fear of losing all those followers," says Gasbarino-Knutt, who runs the #RugbyUnitedCanada Twitter account. "They keep the spirit alive even while they're away."
Gasbarino-Knutt, who also serves as the community manager and content editor at rugby brand Aedelhard, applauded the Wolfpack's "community-oriented" approach. She hopes the team's success can serve as a case study for bringing professional rugby union to Canada.
"There are people that are saying 'gosh, if they can make it work, surely we can make it work,'" Gasbarino-Knutt says. Previous expansion efforts with the U.S.-based PRO Rugby ended contentiously, and the competition has effectively ceased operations as of last December.
One league, two continents
Those lengthy stretches away from home will continue in the Championship. The Wolfpack are still responsible for flying over teams for matches in Toronto, but Perez credits jersey sponsor Air Transat for stepping up in that regard.
"It doesn't really cost us to bring teams over because we've been lucky enough to make strategic partnerships," Perez told Sportsnet's Jeff Blair and Stephen Brunt on Sept. 11.
Living arrangements will likely be similar for the players as well. According to Ngawati, the lone Canadian-born player on the team, players lived together at George Brown College in Toronto for most of the season. When classes resumed towards the end of the season, they moved to a hotel near Yonge and Bloor.
"To be honest, I loved it and I know the boys really enjoyed it as well," the 18-year-old from Victoria says.
"Living together with the group of guys that you go on the field every weekend with, putting your body on the line for them, it definitely builds camaraderie and helps us on the field as well."