Josh McCrone has just been named the captain. Ashton Sims is the vice-captain. Cory Paterson is in the second row. All for a team that represents the city of Toronto, Canada. The only professional rugby league team in a nation of 38 million people, and an eight-hour flight away from their nearest opponent. For now.
On the eve of their second season in England’s Rugby Football League, this year in the second-tier Championship, the Toronto Wolfpack is a team that has shaken up some of the thinking in the rugby league world, and they might not be done just yet.
Due to the recent parting-of-ways between the team and three key players, including recently signed Dave “Coal Train” Taylor, and fan favourite Fuifui Moimoi, there could be more players with NRL experience coming here to Canada. It’s clear the team is driven to succeed, want the best players available, and have some money to spend.
But what of the long-term plans for expansion to other cities in North America? New York is allegedly in the middle of the process of joining, to start by 2019. Hamilton, Ontario, a blue-collar city of 550,000 just a 45-minute drive from Toronto has been rumoured for months to be interested. Other names are bandied about by people speculating, some wishfully, some wildly, as potential homes for new teams.
All would play in the RFL. They would be under RFL rules for hiring players, which places a limit on how many can come from outside the UK or North America.
The claim has been made in some quarters that there is simply not enough available talent in the UK, France, Ireland, and North America to sustain the level of quality of the game should more teams join, and that it will take too long for Canadian and American athletes in other sports to transition to rugby league.
At the same time, it’s acknowledged that the best players are in the NRL and that the quality of the game is the highest there. If all of these conditions are held as true, then there is a potential here for change that might see more NRL pros choosing to ply their trade in North America.
Five teams in Canada and the USA could open up to 35 spots for players not “federation trained or academy juniors” under current rules, but could also put pressure on the RFL to change the quota rules. Increase that by just one more spot per team in the Super League and Championship, and around 20 more jobs could be open for players, not to mention positions for coaches and other staff. The theory continues that this would increase the quality level of their game.
Would NRL pros be interested in playing for cities in Canada and the USA? I’m Canadian (and also brand-spanking-new to rugby league in the past year thanks to the existence of the Toronto Wolfpack), so I’m clearly biased, but the opportunity to live and work in another country for a time is quite appealing to some.
Players who represented Toronto last year, many of whom had never been to Canada before, praised what an amazing experience it was, and how much they enjoyed it. Due to family pressures, however, a couple felt the need to return to England. It’s not for everyone.
Ultimately, if more teams in North America join the RFL, I see more places for adventurous players from the NRL, potentially throughout the entire British league, which could lead to improvement in the quality of the game itself.