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. 

An amazing opportunity to play in Canada, perhaps, which Josh McCrone, Ashton Sims, and Cory Paterson likely never even imagined just a few short years ago.


    • Depends on how he goes this year I guess. Although if he has in fact moved back to Sydney to be closer to his daughter, than I can’t see him wanting to go back overseas.

  1. Nicholas, firstly, I think it’s great you’ve taken to RL. It’s an awesome sport, and welcome aboard.

    You make a lot of valid points, but in the short – medium term you could also argue the other way. With the current salary cap differential between SL and the NRL, the expansion of the game is likely to attract NRL players on the cusp of retirement or unable to break into FG here (in Australia).

    The expansion of SL, by several U.S / Canadian clubs, whilst the salary cap is around current levels is likely to be more of a bonus for the NRL, in that it could provide a deeper pool to poach talent from. That said, if RL takes root in Canada / the U.S, then we will become the breeding ground for your comp.

    All that aside, and as your new to RL, I can only hope you see the light and become an Eels supporter.

    • I completely agree. In the long term, provided there is success in getting expansion going, jobs might available. But that’s also contingent upon the salary cap in the RFL going up to a level that starts to approach the NRL. They’re nowhere near right now. As such, players near the end of their career, or just trying to break in, would be more likely to give expansion teams a go rather than ‘big’ names. We’ve got the same sort of experience in Canada with players who haven’t quite made the NHL, or who are just a little bit slower after a long career, heading to some European leagues.

      One of my favourite players for the Wolfpack this past season was Rhys Jacks who, sadly, wasn’t re-signed. I think he’s currently back in Australia, playing in the Queensland Cup league (forgive me if I get the nomenclature wrong, as I’m clearly new to all this.) The team decided they wanted bigger / better players if they were going to take up a precious ‘quota’ spot for this season. Hasn’t quite worked out perfectly, as seen by Dave Taylor being released. It may be that Queensland Cup level players are who the expansion teams get at first, then they try to move ‘up’ by offering more money to a riskier player that might not get the same offer in the NRL. Just thinking out loud here. But man I wish they’d bring Rhys back – what a morale-boosting, team-unifying, colleague-supporting, fan favourite he was in 2017.

      Back to my original article, if you look even longer term, it has been suggested that eventually plenty of US and Canadian college athletes who didn’t make the pros in their sports could switch into rugby league. Personally, I don’t see that happening. Teams would have to invest big money to train these athletes, as there’s not many amateur opportunities now, and you can’t just ‘pick up’ rugby league and the nuances of the game in a season. Depending on the individual, of course, you could be looking at three to five years. You’d also have to attract them to rugby league in the first place, and that’s the biggest question mark of all. Toronto might be nearly selling out their stadium, but they’re still almost completely unknown. Will they start to gain more recognition this season? Will league take off in the States if there’s expansion? Will US team owners be patient enough to see the league develop? Will the format of the RFL change? So many variables that any predictions could change overnight with one or tweaks.

      Thanks for taking the time to read the article, and thanks very much for the welcome to the game.

  2. I followed the Wolfpack religiously last year and commend the RFL for doing what the NRL have failed to for years and that’s think outside the box.

    I think the one thing that could be encouraged and the RFL could look at, with the support of the NRL, is not capping Overseas players that have not had NRL experience.

    By this I mean, rather than clubs just ditching all the u20’s players that don’t crack the NRL straight away and lose them to the game, why not funnel these lads or allow them to participate in the championship/super league not counting towards the Overseas quota (or allow X amount of them so it doesn’t then push the local players away too significantly)

    This way, the swarms of age group players that weren’t quite NRL standard, can continue to develop and support an emerging competition/markets whilst boosting the standards of the top 2/3 divisions of the RFL competitions.

    Welcome to Rugby League Nicholas. It’s an obsession not a game!

    • Terrific idea. Sort of like a ‘farm system’ as we would call it over here. For example, if the Toronto Blue Jays have some young players they want to develop, but who aren’t quite major league calibre yet, they don’t just cut them loose. They might get sent to a team in a lower league that is affiliated with the big club. The Buffalo Bisons of the Triple-A league are for those closest to the level, but then you get teams at Double-A, Single-A, Rookie, and so on. Of course baseball teams are awash in cash and can do that – the Jays just signed third baseman Josh Donaldson for one year, paying him $32 million US! The kids on the farm teams have coaches who help develop their skills, and get them ready to play at the highest level. They might be there one, five, eight years, any time frame.

      As for this sport being an obsession, I couldn’t agree more. My wife says she’s a rugby league widow, but she also says she sees how happy this sport makes me, and how incredibly welcoming everyone, of every team, is to us.

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