On April 27, 2016, Toronto Wolfpack were introduced to the world of rugby league at an online press conference which created a blaze of publicity.
Just over four-and-a-half years later, Canada’s first professional rugby league club found themselves out in the cold, denied readmission to Super League for 2021 after their business plan was rejected by the competition’s board by an 8-4 majority with one abstention.
It was an unedifying end to the Wolfpack’s relatively short but eventful time in the British professional game, which saw them climb from League One to Super League in the space of just three seasons before major financial problems hit.
Here, we take a look back at the rise and fall of one of the sport’s boldest-ever ventures…
‘You’ve got to dream as big as you can’
Although denied immediate entry into Super League, instead having to work their way up from the part-time third tier, Toronto made no secret about their desire to reach the top level.
To start with, CEO and founder Eric Perez convinced former Leigh Centurions boss Paul Rowley to join as head coach and three-time Super League-winning coach Brian Noble to come in as director of rugby, followed by making headlines with big-name signings like Fuifui Moimoi and attracting blue-chip sponsorship from Air Transat.
Rowley was even invited to throw out the ceremonial first pitch at a home game for Major League Baseball side Toronto Blue Jays soon after the Wolfpack’s launch, underlining how they were already transcending rugby league’s bubble prior to even taking to the field.
— Toronto Blue Jays (@BlueJays) May 6, 2016
“If you have a dream, you’ve got to dream as big as you can,” Noble, who departed that role in February this year, said at the time. “If you speak to everyone involved, their goal is Super League – and once you’re in there, you’ve a chance of winning it. We want to be right up there.”
That dream may have seemed a long way away from being realised during the club’s first competitive match when they were pushed all the way by amateurs Siddal in the Challenge Cup, eventually prevailing 14-6 thanks to late tries from Greg Worthington and Adam Sidlow.
Once the League One season got underway though, Toronto never looked back from a 76-0 win away to London Skolars and went the regular season unbeaten, followed by clinching the title in the Super Eights phase with a 26-16 defeat to York City Knights and a 26-26 draw with Keighley Cougars the only blots on their record.
The signs of establishing a fanbase were good too with the club attracting an average crowd of just shy of 7,000 for home matches at Lamport Stadium, with 2018 replicating those figures as Toronto took the Championship by storm and built a pre and post-match game-day experience that went beyond just the 80 minutes of action on the field.
The Canadian side finished top of the table at the end of the regular season to secure a place in the Qualifiers, although they fell short of back-to-back promotions after a 4-2 defeat at home to London Broncos in the Million Pound Game.
Rowley’s decision to depart as head coach following the conclusion of the season saw Super League-winning former Leeds Rhinos boss Brian McDermott take over at the helm
This time around there was no stopping the Wolfpack as they again finished top of the table and qualified for the Million Pound Game, holding off Featherstone Rovers to win 24-6 in front of a record 9,974 crowd at Lamport Stadium.
Having now earned a place at the top table, McDermott was forthright about what he believed this meant for the future of rugby league.
“In five years’ time, if the Super League Grand Final or the Challenge Cup final is still competed by some small towns in the north of England… where we are going to sell that to is the interesting point,” McDermott said after that win.
“I know there are a few people opposed to us being in the comp, but we can’t please everybody, can we?”
The demise of the dream
Toronto’s rapid rise to Super League had, however, not been as smooth as those results might suggest.
Rightly or wrongly, the club’s attitude was perceived as arrogant by some and founder Perez left at the end of their first season after differences of opinion with owner David Argyle over the way some aspects of the Wolfpack were run.
Unconfirmed rumours of creditors going unpaid began to swirl too, while Argyle would also step down as chairman and CEO in June 2019 after making a racist comment towards Swinton Lions’ Jose Kenga following a match in Canada, although he remained as owner.
To further underline their on-field intent following promotion to Super League though, Toronto drew more global attention when they unveiled cross-code superstar Sonny Bill Williams at a packed press conference at Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium in November 2019.
The New Zealander had signed a two-year contract which reportedly made him the highest-paid rugby player in either league or union, but he would only play five games for the club before the 2020 season was suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic, with Toronto bottom of the table after losing all six Super League matches.
Worse was to follow though. Being unable to play home games due to travel restrictions or access the UK government’s furlough scheme and Argyle’s investments being wiped out, coupled with having no access to central funding as part of the deal which saw them admitted to the British professional structure in the first place, proved terminal.
“Eventually, the inequality of the Toronto deal was going to rear its head, but the pandemic kind of accelerated that,” Perez, who is now spearheading the entry of another Canadian team into League One for 2021, told Sky Sports in July.
With less than two weeks to go until the Super League season resumed on August 2, the Wolfpack announced their withdrawal from the rest of 2020 with the intention to return the following year, followed by several players leaving – Williams included, re-joining Sydney Roosters – while others in the squad remain in the dark after going months without being paid.
However, the business plan put forward by prospective new ownership group head Carlo LiVolsi was rejected at a Super League board meeting this week, ending any prospect of readmission for Toronto and leaving questions over the viability of rugby league’s North American expansion ambitions following an independent review instigated by the competition.
“Its findings were unanimous – that operating a team in a fiercely competitive North American sports market was non-strategic and added no material incremental revenue to Super League in the short or medium term,” Super League executive chairman Robert Elstone said.
In an odd coincidence, the Wolfpack’s time on the pitch ended how it started – with a win in the Challenge Cup, having beaten Huddersfield Giants 18-0 before the 2020 campaign was interrupted. For many fans though, it will perhaps go down as another ‘what might have been?’ for rugby league.