Ready and willing: Toronto Wolfpack set to bear claws on transatlantic adventure

Graphic: Graeme Bandeira.
Graphic: Graeme Bandeira.
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IF ANYONE had told Richard Whiting he would ever play at Hull FC for a club called Toronto Wolfpack, he would immediately think they had endured one big hit too many.

However, that is just what the Airlie Birds legend will do tomorrow in an historic encounter that has captured the imagination of the rugby league world.

Newcomers Toronto, who will start life in League 1 this season and are backed by serious financial muscle, are the first-ever trans-Atlantic sports team following their bold and exciting introduction by the RFL.

Although they do not open their campaign in the sport’s third tier until March 4 at London Skolars, they will play their maiden competitive fixture in a friendly against the Challenge Cup holders Hull FC at KCOM Stadium on Sunday.

Whiting, who spent 13 years with the East Yorkshire club, winning the Challenge Cup in 2005 before leaving for Leigh Centurions last April, is set to feature in the back-row for Toronto.

He has signed a two-year deal with the ambitious pioneers who are coached by Paul Rowley, boast former Great Britain chief Brian Noble as their director of rugby and have enticed the likes of ex-Kiwi superstar Fuifui Moimoi to make the surreal move.

Toronto, the only professional rugby league club in Canada, will play eight of their first 11 League 1 games in the UK before a four-week stretch of home matches, including fixtures with Hunslet Hawks and York City Knights, at their own Lamport Stadium in June and July.

They have trained at Brighouse Rangers ARLFC while here for their pre-season and that will act as their base during their stints playing the likes of Keighley Cougars, Doncaster, North Wales Crusaders and Newcastle Thunder.

Whiting, 32, told The Yorkshire Post: “It’s exciting.

“Obviously, I’ve been in rugby league a long time now and to be part of something so new and helping develop the game globally is really thrilling.

“Pre-season has been really good; there’s a great set of lads who have all gelled quickly so we can’t wait to start playing now and especially showing the fans in Canada just what this sport is all about.

“As players we’ve not been out there yet. Andrew Dixon went to see the Toronto ground when he was out there on holiday but it will be nice for us all to experience it together.

“We’ve been told we’ll either be in condos or townhouses in groups of four.

“The overseas players here are already living together and it’ll be better than being in hotels; you can prepare your own meals and it won’t be too dissimilar to living at home aside from our families won’t be there all the time.

“We’re in a privileged position as players to be part of this club that has said it wants to get to the top of the pile in Super League inside five years.”

Although Toronto’s full-time squad is largely made up of familiar names from the Championship and Super League, they do include four players – “rough diamonds but plenty of ability” – who emerged from a series of trials held across north America and Jamaica for a television documentary called Last Tackle.

That is one of the many vibrant ideas incorporated by their charismatic chief executive Eric Perez who, along with backers such as wealthy Australian mining magnate David Argyle, has persuaded the RFL they are in this unique project for the long haul.

Toronto are covering the entire travelling and accommodation costs for opposing teams in League 1 while Perez – a former Canadian national team manager who sold his own advertising agency to invest into the Wolfpack – hopes to have a Montreal side up and running in that division by 2019.

By then, of course, Toronto plan on being in Super League and players of Featherstone-born Whiting’s ilk should certainly aid that cause.

It seems implausible but it is a sign of how far the sport is now reaching.

“I’d definitely not have imagined this happening,” admitted Whiting, when asked if he could have envisaged such a scenario when he made his FC bow in 2004.

“It’s a long time ago since I made my debut for them and, weirdly, that was back at Featherstone, the club I’d left.

“Now I’m going back to Hull for my first game with Toronto. It’s strange how things pan out.

“I wasn’t sure if I’d ever get to play at the KC again so to be coming back in the first game for my new club is really nice.

“With regards signing for Toronto, I spoke with my wife as it would mean being away for a couple of months at a time.

“But then we weighed it up with the opportunities for our children to come out and experience a different place like Canada. It was too good to turn down.”