Something to howl about: Toronto beat London Skolars 76-0 in their first league game.
History was made in London on Saturday with the league debut of the first transatlantic sports team.
For all the constant talk, though, it was not the eagerly-awaited entrance of a professional side from the English capital in the National Football League (NFL) or National Basketball Association (NBA).
No, this was Canada’s moment in the sporting spotlight as the Toronto Wolfpack overwhelmed the London Skolars 76-0 in Kingstone Press League One, the third tier of English rugby league, with 1,542 fans there to witness it.
For coach Paul Rowley, the landmark could be significant as he told Sport360: “This has the potential to be as important as the initial meeting of rugby league, the Northern Union breakaway in Huddersfield 122 years ago.”
The seeds were first sown when chief executive, and Torontonian, Eric Perez watched the 2005 Super League Grand Final between Bradford Bulls and Leeds Rhinos.
“He was inspired by that and said he’s got to take this to Canada,” revealed Brian Noble, who coached Bradford to victory in that game and, ironically, is now the Wolfpack’s Director of Rugby.
And despite winning three Super League and World Club Challenge titles, this was a role, a challenge, he could not resist after being impressed by the lofty ambitions of Perez and owner David Argyle, a wealthy Australian businessman.
Their aim is to reach Super League – and Noble and Rowley are hellbent on making that dream come true, faster than a five-year target.
“It’s absolutely possible,” said an upbeat Noble. “Anything is possible with the right system, structures, coaching and players. The element of fear I’m never worried about, and if you give 100 per cent and you are backed then I believe you can achieve something special.
“I’ve done everything in the game, but to start something from scratch and build it up to Super League in hopefully a few years’ time is ambitious to say the least. If we do it, I think it would surpass what I’ve done before.
“If, in two years’ time when we are in the hallowed turfs of Super League, there will be no prouder man than me to walk with David Argyle and Eric Perez to lead the team out. It will be a complete icing on the cake for my career.
“There’s an element of suspicion, doubt and it’s part of the Northern England mentality that ‘you’ll never do that, it’s too hard’. But change is massively needed in our sport. It is good but we need a new audience, fresh enthusiasm, new places to go. We are pioneers, like the original pioneers who went out to America.”
Noble, who also coached Wigan, Crusaders, Salford and Great Britain, admits to ‘mindblowing’ logistical challenges and obstacles unlike any he has faced before. None more so than making a venture based 3,500 miles away run smoothly.
The Wolfpack, whose first official competitive game was a battling 14-6 win at Siddal in the Challenge Cup third round last weekend, will be based in Brighouse, near Huddersfield, to fulfil away fixtures while home games will be at Lamport Stadium in downtown Toronto.
With sponsors such as airline, Air Transat, they will pay travel and accommodation costs for opponents coming to Canada, and have refused prize money entitlement for the first two seasons. Gary Carter, who covers RL for The Sun, feels the bold move, unanimously approved by the Rugby Football League, has much to admire.
“At first glance, the thought of near 7,000-mile round trips for away games may sound daft, but the more you look into it, with the genuine money they have behind them and the expertise they appear to have associated with them, Toronto could end up being the real deal,” he said.
In the dugout: Coach Rowley.
“Their attitude off the field is very much business orientated, rather than that of a club that is fixed in its local community and ends up being restricted by that.
“Rowley talks of spending time in rooms with people from blue-chip companies and the fact Toronto have a TV deal in Canada shows their intent. They also have the biggest shirt sponsorship deal in the game, figures that do not point to a short-term fling.”
While Rowley refers to the creation of the team – which included trials in Vancouver, Tampa, Philadelphia and Kingston, Jamaica, for North American talent – as a Hollywood movie, this could be their own Field of Dreams.
With an untapped market and supportive backers, Noble believes “if they build it, the people will come”. “We have an ambitious ownership group that want to promote the game in North America, not just Canada,” he said.
“We have 10,000 expressions of interest from fans, so that’s possibly 10-12,000 crowds. Psychologically, rugby league is the toughest sport in the world and physically you have to be an unbelievable specimen to play. I think it’s tailor made for the market we are going into.
“I think the Torontonians will love rugby league. It’s simpler than union and a lot like Canadian and American football so they will understand the collision, but its non-stop for 80 minutes. I think they will be blown away by it.
“Of course, this has risks. We haven’t done the travel yet and genuinely won’t know where we are until we get into that. But we have a club ready to face those tests. “It’s a bit like when the French team Catalans Dragons first came into Super League [in 2006] and had a years’ lead up. They have been a fantastic success story and I am hoping we will be as successful.
“We had the perfect start at London and it showed the desire, commitment and professionalism of the team. Now we have to maintain that.”
Excitement outweighs any apprehension as Rowley, a former England hooker who led Leigh to Championship titles in 2014 and 2015, says: “It’s fairytale stuff. When we first got the lads in, there was nothing tangible and thought this can’t be real. But every step we take is a ground-breaking step.”
It could also provide the template for teams to be similarly formed in other parts of the world to play in overseas leagues. Toulouse Olympique became the second French team to join the English rugby league in 2016 and won immediate promotion from League One to the Championship.
Given their proximity to Australia and the attraction of the NRL, Rowley reckons the UAE and Asia are potential markets too.
We went through extraneous measures to ensure we drafted at least 3 N. American players via open tryout. Rome wasn't built in a day kind sir
“This can kick-start people’s imaginations into realising the world is a smaller place and more accessible. The boundaries are coming down and it’s not too difficult or unrealistic to put teams in as many countries as you so wish.
“I have family in Dubai and seen how they build from the bottom up and want to create the biggest and the best, so why not have a rugby league team based from there, whether taking part in Super League or the NRL? It’s not about people through turnstiles anymore, but eyeballs on TV and money.
“You have to be forward thinking. Before our introduction, some other tweaks happening were a slow death for our game. But we will hit China, Japan too. There is not a corner of the world that doesn’t have something to offer.”
With Canada and the US hosting the RL World Cup in 2025, Noble says there is interest in setting up new teams in Montreal, Boston and New York. “People say we are in Canada, but it’s a six-hour flight, Dubai is maybe seven,” he added.
“It takes you longer to go from Bradford to Torquay in a bus. “Super League, for me, has been flat the last couple of years and the game needs innovation. Toronto will be refreshing.”
The domestic rugby season was thrown into controversy yesterday after Abu Dhabi Harlequins were awarded the West Asia Premiership title – despite hardly any clubs being aware that the championship was being run on a league format.
Clubs had been fulfilling their 2016/17 fixtures under the assumption that both the WAP and UAE Premiership seasons would come down to finals – the West Asia showpiece to be played on March 31 and the UAE title up for grabs a week later on April 7.
West Asia Premiership and Gulf Conference Competitions Regulations for the current campaign posted on the Asia Rugby website in September state that the competition is played across 14 rounds home and away and that the winner is the team with the most points.
But Quins had no idea their 47-7 victory over Jebel Ali Dragons in Abu Dhabi on Friday night meant they had usurped Dubai Exiles as West Asia champions.
Ghaith Jalajel, Asia Rugby’s development consultant for the UAE region, told Sport360: “It is correct the West Asia Premiership is won on points, so whoever finishes top of the table is the winner.
“The play-offs they have to play later is for the West Asia Cup, where we have the top and bottom four playing. One plays four and two plays three and then a final. There is a Cup and a Trophy. The UAE Premiership is first v second in a play-off final.”
Quins were only made aware of the actual rules by Bahrain, who seemed to be the only side aware of this.
It has left a bitter taste among their competitors though, especially Bahrain, Doha, Exiles and Dragons who were all in contention for a top-four finish in the WAP which they believed brought with it a play-off berth to vie for the West Asia title.
Dragons director of rugby Paul Hart fumed: “Our understanding has always been that the top four teams in the West Asia league go into the semi-finals on March 24. Therefore the only thing won to this stage is home advantage in the semi’s
“It’s like awarding Wasps the cup in the English Premiership before the play-offs have even started. We are working hard to qualify for the semi-finals and like all competitions the champions are crowned when they win the final.”
2015/16 champions Exiles have been below par this term, but a bonus point victory over Abu Dhabi Saracens in their final game of the campaign at The Sevens on Friday ensured they went above Dragons into fourth spot, which they believed at least gave them a fighting chance of reaching the post-season.
“We were all under the impression that there is a semi and a final in the West Asia Premiership,” said coach Jacque Benade.
“Top of UAE Premiership and second place also play of in a final. I just don’t know why do you have semis and finals if it is not for the league competitions.
“We were still fighting for a top four under the impression that we can still win the WAP if we can make the play-offs. When we travelled to play Bahrain and Doha they were all talking about the importance of having a home semi-final.
“I know it was a big issue from last year at the end of the season and as far as I know it was discussed with the UAE Rugby Federation by the clubs to bring in a semi-final and a final. In the UAE premiership it was just a straight final between first and second.”
Alex Natera’s Doha, unlike Exiles, were guaranteed a play-off spot, and the Qatar-based coach branded the revelation “rubbish”.
“As far as we are aware the West Asia Premiership is to be decided on March 31. I did read (something about the changes) on social media but just dismissed it straight away.”
Quins, unsurprisingly, were left ecstatic at the news, confirming them as winners of three trophies this season having also captured the Dubai Sevens and West Asia Champions League titles earlier in the campaign.
Head coach Mike McFarlane said: “The title has been won. It’s two different competitions. I had to check this with West Asia and UAE RF. It’s fantastic to claim the league after a sustained effort from the boys. It was a great way to secure it with a clinical performance against Dragons.”
Core Savills took part in a gruelling six matches on Friday, before beating Alec in the men’s final 6-3 to become the first team in the history of the Zurich Corporate Touch 6s to successfully defend their title.
The victors, led by David Abood, had to contend with a record number of teams taking part in the event to clinch the much-coveted Winners’ Cup.
Team captain David said: “Coming back to the tournament for the second time, we were feeling the pressure to defend out title. We didn’t have as many substitutes this year and the competition was much harder than 2016, but the guys worked hard and did us proud!”
“The tournament has grown a lot since 12 months ago and we want to say a special thanks to all the referees, who were amazing. It was a fantastic day and we definitely plan to come back next year to try and secure a hat trick.”
In the mixed teams’ category, the Saudi Scorpions fought their way to a tense 3-1 victory over tournament newcomers Emirates in their final game, which saw them lift the Mixed Team Winners’ Cup for the first time.
Team captain Trish Maru (48) said: “I’m so proud of the team, who totally exceeded all of our expectations. Emirates were very tough competitors and we actually lost against them when we played each other in the opening round, so we were nervous to face them again. However, we were very determined and focused on the end result and this obviously paid off.”
The Female Player of the Tournament accolade was awarded to Hattie Witty, who played for Zurich, while the Male Player award went to Robin Stewart of last year’s mixed team champions Atkins. Both showed great determination, skill and enthusiasm throughout the tournament on behalf of their respective teams.
Congrats Saudi Scorpions on winning the Mixed Cup. Hard fought final against @emirates & great sportsmanship throughout. @MiddleEastTouch
Returning to the tournament for the first time in six years was ex-England rugby union player, Steve Thompson.
Thompson, who took part in the Transguard Living Team, was full of praise for the tournament:
“I took part in the very first Zurich Touch tournament in Jebel Ali six years ago. Coming back today as part of the Tranguard Living team really highlighted just how much the tournament has grown. It has been a great carnival atmosphere and it’s great to see so many families down here making a real day of it.”
“My team is a real mix of abilities, including some who have never seen a rugby ball before! But, that’s what makes Touch such a great game because anyone can play. It’s been a brilliant day, and I hope to be back next year with the Transguard Living team.”