Expansion 'Pack or capital gain in Million Pound Game?

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Rugby league may have its roots in the old industrial heartlands of Cumbria, Lancashire and Yorkshire but its branches have certainly spread far further and wider than those narrow horizons.

There was no greater example of this growing scope than last Friday night when reigning champions Leeds, moored in West Yorkshire – a traditional hotbed of the sport, were beaten at Headingley by one of its newest outposts – Toronto Wolfpack.

Fewer than two years into their existence, the Canadian club are just 80 minutes away from a remarkable rise to the Super League in the Million Pound Game, having dominated both the Championship and League One divisions.

Could the Wolfpack be about to join the ranks of the Maple Leafs, the Raptors, the Blue Jays and Toronto FC in Toronto’s elite sports portfolio?

‘The whole place has a buzz about it’

Toronto’s rise has not pleased everyone, especially hardened traditionalists whose frustrations lie in the lack of away fans at grounds and the fact that heartland clubs such as Leigh, Whitehaven and Keighley have all revealed financial concerns in the past season, while the newcomers thrive.

However, it is the finance of Australian mining tycoon David Argyle, rather than the Rugby Football League’s coffers, which has bankrolled the Wolfpack’s emergence.

Toronto fans

The squad which steamrollered its way through League One was rapidly dismantled and reshaped, and elite-level National Rugby League experience was threaded through the team in the shape of Josh McCrone, Ashton Sims and Darcey Lussick.

Success, added to some smart fan-led matchday experience facilities established by the club, has seen crowds in excess of 8,000 people attending Toronto home games – figures that exceed several top-tier organisations.

The novelty factor has also seen head coach Paul Rowley invited to make first pitch at a Blue Jays baseball game before a television crowd in tens of millions, players invited on to national TV chat shows and on finishing top of the Championship league table they were invited to open the Toronto Stock Exchange.

“The whole place has a buzz about it, we’re just doing our best to ride on the back of that,” former Canberra Raiders and St George Illawarra playmaker McCrone told BBC Radio 5 live sports extra.

“We’re getting pretty good crowds at the games we play, everyone is loving the footy, the whole city has bought into it and we’re just trying to repay that faith.”

Fiji international Sims commented: “The one thing David Argyle wants to do is not just make it about the rugby league experience, it’s about experiencing the whole day.

Toronto Wolfpack banner at Lamport Stadium

“That’s what the Super League clubs do. You don’t just go there and watch 80 minutes of footy, you go there and have a Sunday afternoon of it.

“We try to make it a real vibrant atmosphere and it shows in the way we play.”

‘They haven’t been given it, they earned it’

Rather than seeking to be parachuted into the Super League in the same way that Catalans Dragons were in 2006, Toronto instead applied to work their way through the professional ranks from the bottom tier.

It may have led to some big scorelines, as Manchester United Womens’ football side has found on their introduction to the Women’s Championship, but it also ensured a sense of sporting integrity for the Wolfpack within the game.

“Toronto haven’t been given it, they’ve earned it on the field of play,” Bradford Bulls head coach John Kear said.

“They went into League One and dropped just three points, one defeat and one draw in the whole season.

“Then they went into the Championship and topped the table, and guaranteed a home Million Pound Game in the Qualifiers, beating two Super League teams. They will think that they can win that.”

The next step?

Toronto’s opponents in the match they call the ‘Million Pound Game’ – so called as it reflects the level of central funding available to clubs in the top-flight Super League, will be the London Broncos.

One of the original ‘expansionists’ following their introduction as Fulham in 1980, the team from the capital have been out of the top flight since 2014, but they have impressed this season, finishing second in the Championship and winning four of seven games in the Qualifiers.

They may lack the transatlantic glamour of their opponents, but the prospect of capital city representation in the elite league would be another fillip for the game.

Under Andrew Henderson, and then his assistant Danny Ward who was appointed head coach last winter, the Broncos have rebuilt from the shell of a side that came down five seasons ago.

Homegrown talent has been nurtured, such as full-back Alex Walker – who plays for Scotland but comes from Harlow – back-rower Daniel Hindmarsh from north London and Nigeria-born Londoner Sadiq Adebiyi, while academy product Kieran Dixon was brought back from Hull KR.

Added to that are canny imports such as Malta international maverick Jarrod Sammut and former Catalans and Leigh hooker Eloi Pelissier.

Kieran Dixon

“From when I got the job at the start of the year, there was a long-term vision to develop the club around a lot of our youngsters that have come through,” Ward told BBC Sport.

“That’s what we’ve done, 50% of our squad is made up of kids who’ve come through the academy, and that’s got to be a long-term vision, it’s not going to happen overnight.

“On the other hand, we’re in a fantastic position and it’s in our grasp now. So there’s a little bit of pressure but the pressure will be on Toronto even more for where they’re at as a club.

“They’re chasing Super League really hard, they’ve spent a lot of money and thrown a lot at the game over there.”

Grow, grow, grow

London Broncos celebrate

Only one of these two teams can go up as it stands, but the fact that both are involved in the race for Super League is evidence that horizons are broadening in rugby league.

With the Catalans Dragons in Perpignan already flying the flag following their Challenge Cup final win, the prospect of either London or Toronto joining the big league is the kind of event that could even pique the interest of the world media, at levels usually reserved for the elite National Rugby League in Australia and New Zealand.

“It’s huge, I’m a massive fan of the expansion and I love what Toronto have done,” Ward added. “They have their knockers and we can debate all day about that and the heartlands.

“But I love Toulouse and Toronto, it’d be great to see a few more outpost clubs in Super League.

“I believe the game needs it, we’ve got to branch out and have cities around the world playing the game.

“Toronto, there’s talk about a New York team, get another French team like Toulouse who are doing so well, London, Newcastle.”

Ward added, with a chuckle: “If they made a 14-team competition and put us both [London and Toronto] in there with them, then we wouldn’t have to play this game.

“Spread it around and make it a global game, because it is the best game in the world.”

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BBC Sport – Rugby League

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