The black fence at the north end of Lamport Stadium does an adequate job obscuring passing glances, but anyone lingering for a minute on King Street West could be privy to quite a view. In the aftermath of a rugby league practice on a hot July afternoon, members of the Toronto Wolfpack have dragged out a hose, flipped up the lids on two sizable plastic garbage bins and created a DIY ice dip. Rest assured, the sight of 230-pound Tongan prop Fuifui Moimoi submerged to his bare barrel chest warrants a double take, but even before bath time, shirts were an optional part of today’s practice. The team’s 56-year-old director of rugby, Brian Noble, peeled his off to soak in some rays on the sidelines, at times lying on the artificial turf. The majority of players went through their paces as skins, too, almost as if the fittest roofing crew on earth decided to spend their lunch hour playing a little rugby.
In a few days, Lamport will actually be visited by a group of part-time players. In Toronto for a Kingstone Press League 1 game, they’ll become the latest squad to feel just how serious the Wolfpack can be. Toronto’s collective easy spirit, however, always returns in full force once the work is done. “I think we recognize fun is an important part of professional sport,” says Noble. “And if we can show that fun — with the entertaining brand we play — to our fans, they’re going to pick up on that and enjoy our people.”
Rugby league is a variation of the sport with deep roots in northern England that is also popular in Australia and southern France. Now, there’s a group of men who are determined to add Toronto, Canada and possibly the entire North American continent to that list. That the Wolfpack — a trans-Atlantic team playing in an English league — exist at all is a minor miracle of sorts, but the person who started the club has been unflinching in his belief that rugby league is capable of converting many sports fans in his home city.
As part of that process, the Pack are on a bit of an odd journey in their inaugural season. Despite fielding a roster of full-time, paid professionals, Toronto is playing in a third-tier division, for the most part trouncing clubs — some of which have been around for nearly 150 years — comprised of rugby-loving semi-pros with day jobs. The 18-1-1 Wolfpack, with their plus-885 points differential, have a pair of home games remaining on the Super 8s playoff schedule and are essentially a lock to advance to the Kingstone Press Championship for 2018, keeping them on track to realize their three-year goal of promotion to rugby league’s highest class, the Betfred Super League. The coaches and managers associated with the Wolfpack have stellar credentials that outstrip what you might expect to find on a far-flung startup, making it all the more possible this new team boasts legitimate staying power.
A Wolfpack game, like the music that blasts around the stadium before the match, is a bit of a mashup. As Beyoncé lyrics play over AC/DC guitars on a sunny Saturday in July, people roll into Lamport, a west-end Toronto venue that also has markings for field hockey and soccer. Some walking through the gate are just looking for inexpensive entertainment on a sunny afternoon; others have more insight, understanding that league offers a free-flowing, 13-man version of the sport. Rugby union — the more traditional and familiar form of the game — is played with 15 per side and features more scrums.
None of that is news to Noble, who assumes the commentary duties for today’s broadcast, which is available in both Canada and the U.K. Injured Aussie halfback Blake Wallace is also wearing a headset to help tee up a contest between the 13-0 Pack and the 6-7 University of Gloucestershire All Golds, who are a bit short-staffed since a couple of their players couldn’t get the time off from their day jobs to make the trip. After Wolfpack COO Joe Santos sings “God Save the Queen” and “O Canada”, action at “The Den” begins. One of the first tackles is made by Irish international Bob Beswick, who doubles as the Wolfpack’s strength and conditioning coach. It’s a jarring reminder of the brutality at the heart of this sport. “Every tackle is like a car crash,” says 37-year-old team president Eric Perez.
The force of that fact first hit Perez about seven years ago, when he was living in Birmingham, England, and working in advertising. A Toronto boy who’d grown up playing some high-school rugby, Perez found himself sucked into a rugby league game on TV. The quick pace and physicality immediately put him in mind of his home country’s cherished frozen pastime. There was also an entrenched spirit of carrying on in the face of pain akin to what you’d see from a Saskatchewan boy continuing to play after he just took a puck in the teeth. “I was just like, ‘Why has this sport never been to Canada?’” Perez recalls. “This is the most Canadian sport that’s never been in Canada.”
Despite having no money and zero rugby contacts, Perez believed he could be the person to change that. His first move was to contact the Rugby League International Foundation and indicate he wanted to form the Canadian Rugby League Association. Thanks to a go-for-it approach and the game’s relatively small community, Perez was soon a fixture on the scene. “Basically, I was able to move to the top echelons of the sport within a couple years of first watching it on TV,” he says.
With his shoulders rubbing against those of established decision-makers, Perez let his mouth go to work, telling anyone who would listen that rugby league was made for Canada. Part of his Toronto-specific pitch was that the city — relative to other enormous, international centres like London and New York — was actually an underserved sports market. “There’s not enough teams for our population,” he says.
With the Rugby Football League — the sport’s governing body in the U.K. — asking roughly half a million dollars for admission to its leagues, Perez drummed up the funds, only to have a couple backers pull out with cold feet. But once he had the leverage of a binding agreement that stated the RFL would grant Toronto a team if he could come up with the money, support was easier to find. Eventually, an 11-person consortium was formed and the Wolfpack were officially in business under a couple of notable conditions. The first was that Toronto — regardless of how accomplished its roster was — would have to begin in the RFL’s third tier, where clubs typically pay only a small stipend to players. The second was that the Pack would foot the travel and accommodation bill for any visiting team it played through League 1 and Championship competition. “We had to make it risk-free [for the RFL],” says Perez. “If it was costing the teams to come over, it’s not risk-free.”
A sponsorship deal with Air Transat has greatly softened the burden of travel expenses. And while the two sports aren’t a complete apples-to-apples comparison, Perez says Hall of Famer Peter Forsberg — who’s been on the management side of hockey since returning to Sweden — has cited the Wolfpack as an example of how trans-Atlantic competition can work, should the NHL ever seriously consider that route. At home, the Pack charge $20 per ticket, understanding that the most important thing is exposing people to the bone-busting product. “It’s a party,” says Perez. “Everyone is in a great mood. Everything is reasonably priced. We’re the people’s team, so we have the people’s prices.”
Throwing caution to the wind in pursuit of big dreams is not something Paul Rowley associates with his part of the world. The 42-year-old Wolfpack head coach grew up in Northern England, where the M-62 highway runs east-west from Liverpool to the North Sea, flanked by what he refers to as “pit and mill towns.” Rugby league is a way of life there, often within some fairly narrow existences. “People in these pit towns, they get a nosebleed if they travel 10 miles away — they think they’ve gone a long journey,” Rowley says.
Rowley’s on-field skill at the hooker position made him a candidate for broader horizons. He spent a decade in the RFL’s top division and represented England at the 1996 and 2000 Rugby League World Cups. His playing career both began and ended in his native Leigh with the Centurions, bookending stops with Halifax RLFC and the Huddersfield Giants. After hanging up his boots, Rowley eventually became head coach of the Centurions, and won Championship Coach of the Year honours in 2012.
But the good times did not last. “I’m a stubborn, strong man — call it what you will — but I’ll never be bullied, financially or physically, and I didn’t like the way [the Centurions] were doing things,” he says. “I’m not one to take any rubbish. At the expense of myself, I walked away with nothing.”
Rowley made that decision early in 2016, and he was still in the club parking lot after handing in his resignation letter when news of his departure broke on Twitter. His phone started blowing up and while sorting through the incoming messages, he found an email from Perez saying he was in the country and wanted to connect. About an hour later, Rowley got another note from Perez, who by now had caught wind of his situation. “In Eric’s own particular way — without [repeating the] swear words — he said, ‘Oh my God, what’s gone on here?’” Rowley recalls. “That’s how it all began. It was a bit of fate, really.”
Starry as that beginning felt, Rowley came face-to-face with the realities of starting a club from scratch in a new country during a visit to Toronto a few months later. One of his first stops was to throw out the first pitch at a Blue Jays game. “I’m thinking, ‘OK, this is a bit strange in itself,’” he says. “Came to Lamport, concrete jungle, thinking, ‘All right, not sure it’s the dream just yet.’ Weather was rubbish and I didn’t have a single player, single staff member. It was just me and Eric.”
That changed when Noble got involved in the project through a connection he shared with Perez — Wolfpack team director Adam Fogerty. A former boxer and rugby league player, Fogerty is better known in North America for his role as Gorgeous George in the 2000 film Snatch. Noble, who has served as both captain and coach of the English national team, soon jumped in on the operation. The result was instant credibility for rugby league’s newest squad. “When you got Paul Rowley [and] Brian Noble putting their names to the team, I was like, ‘Yeah, this is legit now,’” says Wolfpack halfback Rhys Jacks, an Australian who’s a Canada international thanks to the fact his grandfather was born here.
Through the back half of 2016, the Wolfpack brass worked to put a roster together. Today, clubs on the wrong end of painfully one-sided scores might complain many of the players were wooed by dollars. Rowley flatly rejects that, saying he was turned down by some potential recruits because they could make more money at home with employment that has nothing to do with the sport. “Contrary to popular belief, this is not a bunch of lads who’ve been cherry picked from top clubs,” he says. “That’s what people like to think because they want to find a reason why they’re not competing. There ain’t a week-to-week, regular Super League player within this club — not one player. This is a bunch of waifs and strays that have all, like me, had troubles and tribulations.”
Still, nobody is claiming anyone in a Wolfpack jersey is going to go hungry. Perez says top players draw six-figure salaries in Canadian dollars, with others coming in just below that mark. That may be unprecedented for League 1, but most of those athletes could have signed on with Championship clubs for a similar salary and — in the case of the many Englishmen — lived year-round in more familiar surroundings.
Toronto, though, could titillate with the opportunity to live in a part of the world that remains foreign for the vast majority of rugby league players. Beginning in March, the Pack played their first five regular-season games in England. In May, they made their home debut. When in Toronto — usually for two to four weeks at a time — the entire team lives at the same George Brown College residences that were used to house athletes during the 2015 Pan Am Games. The boys — many of whom signed multi-year contracts — have watched baseball over beers at Rogers Centre, caught soccer at BMO Field, visited the CN Tower and likely enjoyed their share of less structured fun, too. It’s all part of being on the ground floor of something new that, a very short time ago, would have seemed completely implausible. “I’d dare to say pretty much 90 to 100 per cent of the people here could get better salaries elsewhere,” says Noble. “The challenge and adventure has certainly attracted this group of people.”
Long before his players could watch Toronto sports together, Rowley was tasked with finding a binding agent for a bunch of people who’d come together under a banner that didn’t yet stand for anything. Last December, the Pack held their pre-season camp in Brighouse, West Yorkshire, and the rolling terrain in that part of England provided the perfect push for the players to find their collective voice. “I told them if they’d not made me a team song by the day we break up for Christmas, then I’m going to smash them to bits on the hills,” Rowley says. “So, that day came, and we’re standing there and there’s the hill, and they sung their hearts out. I thought, ‘All right, good effort.’ And we sing it to this day.”
Hunting down a little piece of family history proved easier than Jacks ever imagined. On Canada Day weekend, the 27-year-old set off with his partner — the Wolfpack helps facilitate visits for loved ones — in search of the downtown Toronto house his paternal granddad grew up in before moving to Australia around the age of 10. Jacks’s father had sent him a picture of the place and an address. As it turned out, the spot was only a short walk from George Brown College. “It looked the exact same as the photo Dad had,” Jacks says. “It was unreal walking around, soaking in the neighborhood [my grandfather] would have grown up in.”
Noble has had no trouble striking a connection with his part-time home, either. A trip to the Niagara region with his son took him through unfamiliar places with names he’s known all his life, like Grimsby and Lincoln. Noble grew up in Bradford, England, and says his family name is actually more common in Canada now than his part of the world. There’s also a sense of familiarity he feels goes both ways. “The kind of bloodstock that created this joint understand what this game is about,” Noble says.
Whether you’re new to the action or immersed in it like the hardcore types who form a supporter’s section in the north-east bleachers — including a man in a black-and-white kilt who looks like a Braveheart extra — rugby league might be easiest to appreciate when Moimoi is on the move. Early in the second half versus the All Golds, with Toronto already up 34-6, he’s tossed the ball near mid-field. Catching it, Moimoi explodes from a light jog to full sprint, like a logging truck with the acceleration of a Porsche. It requires four All Golds to stop him and, moments later, when he’s taken another pass from Jacks deep in enemy territory, the former Tonga and New Zealand international runs through Gloucestershire’s Jack Mitchell for a try as if the defender was nothing more than a ribbon stretched across a finish line.
While plays like that always delight the home crowd — attendance has been even more robust than the team hoped for, usually landing around 7,000 people — one Wolfpack member drew an ovation simply for getting on the pitch. In the 55th minute, Victoria, B.C., native Quinn Ngawati made his League 1 debut. The 18-year-old, fresh off finishing his high-school exams a few weeks prior, is the only born-and-bred Canuck on the club. His mother played on the University of Victoria’s first rugby union team for women and his dad, who played rugby league, is part Kiwi with Maori roots. Immediately after entering the game, the six-foot-four Ngawati got his nose dirty, confidently carrying the ball into a mob of All Golds. After the game, won 62-10 by Toronto, the youngster talked about the Pack’s presence in the national sporting landscape. “Just to have that opportunity [where] there is a path that leads to you playing professional on your home soil, I think that’s a massive draw for any young kid in Canada,” he said.
Despite the lopsided score, rather than resent a team that clearly belongs in another division, the All Golds seem to relish the opportunity to visit a new country and get a different rugby league experience on someone else’s dime. Thoroughly beaten — and more than lightly bruised in some cases — the All Golds are also smiling while taking a team photo. Behind them in the stands, a small band of supporters holds up a blue flag with their logo. “We’ve got painters, we’ve got students, we’ve got teachers — everyone is part-time on our team,” says prop Joe McClean, himself a teacher working in sport development. “I can see from today and the massive crowd [that Toronto is] being run really well. Rugby league being exposed in a different country is only a good thing.”
That’s been the message from Perez, Noble and Rowley from Day 1. They want the Wolfpack to eventually become just one of a few successful rugby league teams rooted in North America. Thus far, the buff boys in white jerseys and black shorts are great ambassadors, no doubt winning more hearts and minds with each victory lap around the perimeter of the pitch. Noble says Moimoi will happily shake hands with every person in the stadium, while Jacks looks delighted to be nestling in for a selfie with a group of guys in full-body wolf costumes who’ve spent a good portion of the day in the popular beer gardens — which is precisely where you’ll find imbibing members of both the All Golds and Wolfpack about 45 minutes after the final hooter.
“It’s nothing like England, it’s nothing like Australia,” says Jacks. “But I think it’s a good thing. It’s sort of a fresh thing to play in front of all the music, people dancing, interacting with the crowd. I can’t believe it, to be honest.”
While a live band plays outside, singing inside the Wolfpack dressing room is delayed until everyone has returned from the pitch. Players waiting around for the song to start are in various stages of undress; captain Craig Hall is covered only by a couple tattoos and a pair of briefs with a Wolfpack logo featured prominently on the front. Finally, with everyone accounted for, their voices rise up and they belt out the chorus debuted for Rowley back in Brighouse: “Wolfpack’s on fire, your defence is terrified!”
Surely, there’s hit potential.
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