Dave Craven – Ambitious Toronto Wolfpack deserve a place at Super League’s top table

Brian Noble
Brian Noble
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IT WAS around three years ago I remember attending a dinner and hanging onto the words of its guest speaker Brian Noble.

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It was not his recollections of Bradford Bulls that struck a chord, nor even Great Britain, as much as some of those stories still remain so entertaining.

No, it was when the erstwhile Lions chief began talking about Toronto Wolfpack that my interest really piqued.

Back then, the Canadian franchise was still in its infancy and there was plenty of negativity surrounding its very existence.

A trans-Atlantic side wanting to play in Super League? Farcical. Even by rugby league’s standards of weird and bizarre.

However, when the much-respected Noble, a long-time advocate of expansion and the international game, spoke so eloquently, passionately and with such utter belief about this ambitious Toronto plan, it was hard not to be enthralled.

He, of course, had joined as director of rugby and was helping to plot their rise from League 1 to Super League.

They reached the promised land on Saturday, admittedly 12 months later than they had hoped, and it is exciting to now start thinking what it could mean for the sport.

Inevitably, there are plenty of naysayers who do not want to see Wolfpack anywhere near the top-flight and it will be hard to shift them from that stance. In fairness, though, Super League needs Toronto; it needs an injection of something different, something to reignite the competition.

It is hard to argue with Wolfpack coach Brian McDermott when he wonders aloud whether Super League has truly moved on at all in the last 20 years.

Granted, his comment about it cannot just be about “small northern towns” was perhaps clumsily made but it had the right intentions; the sport has to look further afield to claim the profile it feels it deserves.

Toronto’s presence will open up avenues for bringing in new finance, new sponsors and commercial opportunities, while offering the chance to grow the game in new territories.

There was similar chagrin when Catalans Dragons were invited into the competition in 2006 yet they are now seen as part of the Super League fabric and, indeed, won the Challenge Cup for the first time in their history last year.

On the back of that, they played at Barcelona’s Nou Camp in May, achieving a Super League record attendance and illustrating once more the sort of exposure that can be garnered further away from the M62.

Toronto flight times are seven hours plus but, as has been pointed out, Newcastle Thunder can be on the road for more than six hours when they head to West Wales Raiders or London Skolars in League 1.

Toronto are likely to play in blocks of two matches at home and then two away to reduce the amount of time they spend in the air and they hope to see clubs bring around 1,000 fans when they do play in Ontario.

Clearly, it is an expensive trip but there is nothing to suggest that plenty of supporters will not make that journey just as Hull FC and Wigan fans did when they played a Super League game in Australia last year.

There will be concerns about the number of away fans Toronto will bring to games here but, in the big scheme of things, that is not something that should cause too much distress.

Given the severity of the Canadian winters, they are unlikely to play any home games until the end of April but some fixtures could be taken ‘on the road’ with Barcelona, Dublin and Copenhagen all mentioned as potential host cities.

In terms of what they can offer on the pitch, Toronto are already well-set given the number of former Super League and NRL players in their ranks.

They arrive far stronger than London Broncos did 12 months ago and you would imagine a few further notable signings – talk of a move for All Blacks star Sonny Bill Williams will not go away – will leave them targeting the top-five rather than simple survival.

Wolfpack are not taking any central funds from the current TV contract and, understandably, they want to be able to negotiate their own broadcast deals moving forward.

Hitting that North America market is something that could prove the biggest fillip for them and Super League as a whole.

Only time will tell if there is longevity to it all but Toronto are here willing to take the chance and the sport should be grateful.