English rugby league had its million-pound game at the weekend, with the Toronto Wolfpack emerging victorious against the Featherstone Rovers 24-6 at a packed Lamport Stadium in Toronto.
With this win, the Wolfpack secured promotion into the Super League – English rugby league’s top flight – after being formed just three years ago.
It is a commendable achievement that caps off an astonishing season for the Wolfpack, who lost only one game all year.
There are plenty of positives about the Wolfpack. They will enter the Super League with great support from a sport-mad city with nearly 2.5 million residents. They also have financial backing and strong governance. But despite this, the reception from Super League clubs and fans has been far from warm – in fact some could argue it has been downright frosty.
A large number of fans have taken to social media to let the men from Toronto know just how displeasing their promotion to Super League is.
Part of this is because some fans believe that Toronto will not bring away fans to the United Kingdom and immediately impact those clubs bottom line.
The clubs themselves, who now run the game after seeking independence from the Rugby Football League this season, appeared to speak through Super League CEO Robert Elstone, who stated last week that even if Toronto win promotion, entry into the top flight isn’t guaranteed unless the club can meet “certain criteria”.
The statement seemed vague and unclear as the details of said criteria were never made public. The timing was also unfair considering the Wolfpack were preparing for the biggest game in the club’s short life.
It’s not exactly clear where this pushback against the Wolfpack has come from and why it is so direct and immediate, but it does make it easy to see why rugby league in the UK is having so many problems at present.
In Australia we have a culture of sport governing bodies funding expansion teams, at least in part.
Not so with the Wolfpack. Since their inception in 2016 they have done it almost entirely on their own, paying for everything, including the travel expenses of visiting teams, and so far not excepting one penny of central broadcast funds, which one would hope would mitigate any lost revenue for clubs through poor away attendance.
Through all of this they have built a formidable roster full of ex-NRL and Super League talent to catapult themselves through the lower tiers in almost record time, all the while building an enviable following and sponsorship network.
But while this was happening, a quiet wave of discontent was building across the Atlantic. One can only speculate that it stems from a tinge of jealousy.
When clubs have to rely on opposition fans filling their stadiums and hopefully buying pies and pints see an up-and-coming rival in another country signing sponsorship deals with international companies, they must see a real risk of getting left behind.
While I love the story of Featherstone scrapping their way through the play-offs with a part-time roster of mostly hard West Yorkshire lads and with fans who legitimately wear flat caps and celebrate over a century of tough mining town history intertwined with the communities beloved Rovers team, there is really no argument that they will add more value and vibrancy to the Super League than Toronto.
You only have to look at the scenes from Lamport Stadium at the weekend to understand that the inclusion of the Wolfpack is a very special event in rugby league, not to mention the fact that they are commonly reported on in Canadian newspapers like the Toronto Star, the Globe the Toronto Mail as well as by local news channels.
Add to that that professional sports outfits from the city, such as the Blue Jays (MLB) and the Maple Leafs (NHL), shared the Wolfpacks success with their millions of followers on social media. This should be vindication enough that this club gives rugby league untold opportunities.
The simple fact is that now we have rugby league played professionally in five countries.
This new team does have its challenges, but it sits in a progressive, vibrant and sport-loving city that fills their stadium with fans who didn’t even know what rugby league was four years ago.
With untapped reserves of talent and a population that is craving sport in the NHL off-season, record investment has already flocked to this team with more coming.
With more franchises keen to compete in the English leagues, hopefully fans can look past the immediate pain to the whole world of opportunities.