TORONTO — Rugby league landed in Toronto with a bang Saturday as the fledgling Wolfpack ran, tackled and punched their way to a lopsided 62-12 win over Oxford RLFC in its home debut.
When the dust settled, there had been 14 tries, three red cards and two yellows before an announced crowd of 6,281 on a grey, moist afternoon at Lamport Stadium.
The fans saw a bit of everything, including several punch-ups that resembled old-time hockey line brawls. Toronto, rugby league’s first transatlantic team, finished with 10 men after Jake Emmitt and Blake Wallace were red-carded after a melee in the 68th minute while Sean Penkywicz was yellow-carded in the 71st.
Oxford captain Callum Windley was also ejected in the 68th-minute fight that escalated to punches after Emmitt was yellow-carded but stayed on the field to pursue his beef.
Toronto wing Liam Kay was yellow-carded earlier in the second half for throwing a punch in another brouhaha.
Toronto coach Paul Rowley said the flashpoints were fuelled by a string of incidents that were not policed properly earlier in the game
"We shouldn’t react," he said. "But what I will say is you only get punched so many times. We’ll protect ourselves. We’re not soft, we’re not mugs. I would expect my players to protect themselves. If the officials can’t protect us, then we’ll do it ourselves. But it just ruins the game really.
"The correct manner of doing it is to deal with the perpetrators from the off and that wasn’t done today, in my opinion. But we should be better, definitely."
Andrew Dixon, Richard Whiting, Jonny Pownall and Ryan Brierley scored two tries apiece for Toronto (6-0-0) while Wallace, captain Craig Hall, Greg Worthington and Ryan Burroughs added singles. Hall kicked seven conversions.
Casey Canterbury scored both tries for Oxford (2-3-0) with Harvey Burnett adding two conversions.
The Wolfpack players exchanged high-fives with jubilant fans on their way off the field before congregating in their spartan dressing room for a rousing rendition of their victory song, "Wolfpack on Fire."
Wolfpack CEO Eric Perez was delighted by the result and the turnout.
"I’m super-pleased," he said. "Because it was very easy for a lot of people to be turned away by the weather report. According to the weather there were going to be boats floating in the streets — people were going to be doing frontstrokes and backstrokes to get to the game."
The Toronto home debut came a little more than a year after the ground-breaking franchise was announced.
The Wolfpack are starting life in the third tier of English rugby league — the Kingstone Press 1 — with an eye to winning promotion to the second-tier Championship and then the elite Super League.
And they are willing to spend money to get there. The franchise, aided by a sponsorship deal with Air Transat, agreed to pay travel and housing costs for all visiting teams until Toronto climbs its way to the Super League.
Oxford, which arrived 10th in the 16-team league, travelled 5,625 kilometres for the match. Its last road trip was 400 kilometres to Barrow, where it lost 64-14 in the League 1 Cup.
A full professional side, the league-leading Wolfpack have largely dominated their semi-pro opposition, winning all five of their previous matches with a 310-37 scoring edge.
Toronto defeated amateur side Siddal ARLFC and the London Broncos of the Championship in the knockout Ladbrokes Challenge Cup before falling to the Super League Salford Red Devils 29-22.
On Saturday, Toronto was without veteran props Fufui Moimoi and Ryan Bailey due to visa red tape. Loose forward Jack Bussey was suspended while second-rower James Laithwaite is a longterm casualty with a cracked bone in his neck.
It’s just a short stop in Toronto this time for the Wolfpack, who leave Tuesday for a game Friday at the Newcastle Thunder.
Then it’s another plane ride and a pair of games in Toronto.
The Wolfpack home, at least to start with, is 42-year-old Lamport Stadium, a rudimentary 9,600 capacity venue that has no cover and no fills.
The fans were restricted to the east stand to start with but were allowed into the west stand as numbers grew. There was a festive feel to the game, helped no doubt to the craft beer tenets at the north end.
During halftime, the crowd was entertained by the She Wolves, the club’s cheerleaders. And during the game, the PA announcer repeatedly asked the fans to howl their approval.