Toronto Wolfpack bombshell an untimely blow for returning Super League

IT would not seem right to ‘start’ Super League without some unexpected late, unedifying drama.

Picture by Alex Broadway/SWpix.com 14/11/2019 - Rugby League season 2019 Sonny Bill Williams signs for Canada Toronto Wolfpack for season 2020 at The Emirates Stadium, North London Sonny Bill Williams and coach Brian McDermott -

IT would not seem right to ‘start’ Super League without some unexpected late, unedifying drama.

Just as the 2020 campaign began back in January amid controversy following Catalans Dragons’ surprise signing of Israel Folau, so another bombshell was dropped yesterday, less than a fortnight before the competition ‘restarts’ after coronavirus.

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In fairness, Toronto Wolfpack’s decision to pull out of the competition perhaps should not have come as much of a shock.

Picture by Allan McKenzie/SWpix.com - 05/03/2020 - Rugby League - Betfred Super League - Leeds Rhinos v Toronto Wolfpack - Emerald Headingley Stadium, Leeds, England - Toronto's dejection shows as Leeds's Mikolaj Oledzki is congratulated by Callum McLelland on his try.

Only last week, their owner David Argyle warned that he feared his club might not be able to resume the campaign next month due to visa issues with their seven overseas players.

Still, Super League and the RFL counter they were given assurances as recently as Thursday that Toronto – due to face Hull KR in the first game of a triple-header at Headingley on Sunday August 2 – would be okay to partake.

You can understand, then, their utter dismay when the news broke and how their press statement saying they were “very disappointed” may also have been very understated.

In a lengthy statement, Wolfpack cited “unexpected and overwhelming financial challenges” as reasons behind their decision although others will argue those challenges were around long before this global pandemic given numerous reports of late payments of wages and creditors.

Picture by Alex Whitehead/SWpix.com - 11/03/2020 - Rugby League - Coral Challenge Cup - Toronto Wolfpack v Huddersfield Giants - John Smith's Stadium, Huddersfield, England - Huddersfield’s Aidan Sezer.

Argyle did offer assurances that they would be back in 2021 but who knows what competition that will be in; clearly, given the chaos and embarrassment now heaped on Super League, they will find even fewer supporters in the top-flight.

As bright and exciting as the Wolfpack venture is, it has been beset with problems for much of its existence and has certainly struggled since earning promotion by winning the Million Pound Game against Featherstone Rovers last autumn.

Despite the huge signing of dual-code superstar Sonny Bill Williams, they lost all of their opening six Super League games before mustering their only win of the year in the Challenge Cup at Huddersfield Giants.

But the coronavirus then shut down the sport soon after in mid-March and Brian McDermott’s side – who do not take any central funds from Super League’s broadcasting deal – have been hit worse than most, not least because they have not been able to play any games in Canada this year.

Wolfpack have also withdrawn from the Challenge Cup and, in their statement, they said: “This decision’s not been taken lightly, and in consideration of factors specific to the club as the only transatlantic team in the league.

“Greatly reduced ticket, sponsorship, merchandise and game day revenue streams have resulted from the loss of all 11 of the team’s home Super League games in Toronto.

“The Wolfpack would be left covering significant additional costs simply to complete a season of games in the UK including COVID testing, stadium rentals, medical costs and player pay increases to align with the rest of the league.

“Player and staff payroll, an issue of recent media attention, has been guaranteed by Wolfpack majority owner David Argyle and is secured by a personal guarantee to the RFL.”

It added “...the club fully intend to field a team in the 2021 season, and will be working with SLE and the RFL to understand this process moving into the next season.”

The RFL Board moved swiftly last night to confirm there would be no relegation from the – here is the crucial point – ‘11-team Super League’ this year, nor any promotion from the Championship. Nevertheless, navigating a way through knowing what to do with Toronto in 2021 looks set to be hugely problematic.

It was reported last night that Argyle fears the club will be kicked out of Super League while he has told players to look for deals elsewhere if they can.

But there are myriad issues to contend with and it was a black day not only for them but also for Super League; as it prepares for an already difficult 2021 needing to negotiate a new broadcast deal, this is a humiliating chapter.

A Super League statement read: “Betfred Super League and the RFL are very disappointed to learn that Toronto Wolfpack will not be able to fulfil their obligations to Super League 2020.

“Super League Europe and The RFL have been in regular dialogue with the Wolfpack over the past weeks and months regarding the club’s ability to take part in the competition and firm assurances had been received as recently as last Thursday, 16 July.

“The club’s decision is especially disappointing given the imminent restart of the season. Our immediate focus is on getting the season back underway on August 2 and meeting the needs of our host broadcaster, Sky Sports.

“A discussion around the longer term consequences and the future of the Wolfpack in Super League will commence shortly.”

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