ANZACS ABROAD: A Q&A with Blake Wallace; the Aussie standoff for Canada’s only pro league club
Courtesy of Toronto Wolfpack
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ANZACS ABROAD: A Q&A with Blake Wallace; the Aussie standoff for Canada’s only pro league club

A Wollongong kid, Wallace played for the Central Queensland Capras and Illawarra Cutters before inking a two-year deal with the Toronto Wolfpack.
May 22, 2017, 1:02am

As a young kid growing up in Wollongong, Blake Wallace's dream was to play professional rugby league.

Wallace, 24, finally achieved his dream this season, though it wasn't in the NRL like his childhood hero, Canterbury Bulldogs half Brent Sherwin.

It was for the Toronto Wolfpack; a Canadian rugby league club who made their history making debut in English league's third tier on March 4. It was a spectacular start too; a 76-0 demolition job of the London Skolars at the New River Stadium in North London.

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The Wolfpack – North America's first ever professional rugby league club - began life in 2014, when the governing body for rugby league in the UK received an application from a Canadian consortium to enter a Toronto club in the English system.

Led by Canadian businessman Eric Perez, the Wolfpack held tryouts across North America last year for potential squad members, and attracted a number of English players to move across the Atlantic.

In somewhat of a coup, Perez and his business partners recruited legendary former Great Britain and Super League coach Brian Noble to serve as the club's Director of Rugby League.

Making their way up from Australia were Fufui Moimoi, the cult hero former Eels prop, and Illawarra Cutters standoff Wallace. After growing up in Wollongong, Wallace moved to his father's hometown of Rockhampton in 2013 to take up a Queensland Cup contract with the Central Queensland Capras.

Blake Wallace, who hails from Wollongong, is the Toronto Wolfpack's first standoff. Photo credit: Courtesy of Toronto Wolfpack.

Wallace then moved back south for two seasons with the Cutters, where he played alongside future Dragons prop Russell Packer, the New Zealand international enforcer who'd just been released from prison from serving an sentence on assault.

The gig with the Wolfpack came through Shane Millard - a veteran NRL and Super League hooker - who Wallace was working for in Illawarra. Millard, along with fellow team mate Jimmy Green, set up the opportunity for Wallace to head up to Canada, where he has signed a two-year contract.

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Wallace has enjoyed the move to Toronto - "I haven't been here long, but it actually reminds me a lot of home – especially when it's warm in summer" – and he's been flourishing on the footy paddock.

The Wolfpack - who play blocks of games in the UK and Canada to ease the travel pressures – are unbeaten in their eight games so far in the Kingston Press League 1. Their most recent result was a massive 70-2 victory over Barrow Raiders on Saturday. Before the game, the Raiders were also undefeated.

With Hopes Of Growing Global Game, Rugby League Establishes Canadian Outpost

The Canadian team also managed a three-game run in the Challenge Cup; where they were finally beaten by the Salford City Reds, a Super League glamour club, in a tight encounter.

VICE Sports AUNZ caught up Wallace recently to check in with what it's like playing his league for a Canadian footy club – and what the reception has been on both sides of the Atlantic.

What was it that attracted you to taking a contract playing your league in Toronto?

"It was full-time footy. I could be in a professional environment, and that was something I'd wanted to do since I was a kid. I though 'why not? Why not see a bit of the world, and bring a sport to a country where it's pretty new.'

"Growing up as a kid, I loved rugby league. If I can bring that passion to a country hasn't seen much of it, I'd be pretty stoked to be a part of it. It's good for the game; to grow the game in other parts of the world."

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What has been the reception to you, as a league player, in Toronto? What do people seem to know about the sport?

"It's pretty funny. I've spoken to a few people and they're like 'so you're an Australian that plays for a Canadian team in an English competition. You travel back and forward, do you?' I'm like 'yea.'

"They'll ask 'so where do you live?' And I'm like 'I don't really know.' I don't really have a permanent residence. I travel back and forward quite a bit. I'm just going with it – going with the journey. A lot of people think it's pretty cool.

What's the support been like when you've been out their on the paddock?

"The Canadians seem pretty excited about it. We had a pretty good turnout for our first home game. If everyone enjoys watching the game, I think it will take off.

"The fans are pretty passionate – I'd never seen anything like it. When we were warming up [for the home opener], they were rolling into the ground and they had flares going. They had big banners. They really love it – they're really passionate.

"I think it's because they're a Toronto team – they'll get behind it, no matter what sport it is."

The Wolfpack have got a mix of English Super League veterans, lower league Uk talent and the likes of yourself and former NRL star Fuifui Moimoi. What's the vibe in the squad in these early days?

"I didn't know anyone until I got here. When I did, they made me feel really welcome. We came in pretty tight – we've been a close group from the word go.

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"Training with them, and living with them in Canada – we've got a pretty special bond. There are no idiots in the team; everyone's sweet. That's a credit to the coaching staff and recruiting – they've got a great bunch of guys."

What's the reception been like in the United Kingdom for the Wolfpack? Have people embraced the idea of a Canadian rugby league team in their competition?

"Some have really backed it. For some, we're their second favourite team after their Super League side, but then you've got some people who don't really like change.

"They're a bit skeptical about the whole idea, and aren't too keen on it. It's how it's always going to be; people have got their opinions. Some people don't agree with it, and others think it's good for the sport.

"Personally, I think it is good for the sport. If people can see that, I can't see why it won't be successful."

What's the standard of the tier of rugby league you're playing in, in the United Kingdom?

"I wouldn't say it's NSW Cup level – it's a bit off that. You look at the guys running around in New South Wales and Queensland; there's a fair bit of experience there.

"In this comp, some teams are physical and big – but then there are other teams with not as much money who struggle a bit. It's a bit hard to put my finger on what the level would be. Obviously as we go up the ranks, the standard is going to be a lot better though."

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The Toronto Wolfpack are undefeated in the third tier of English rugby league so far this season. Photo credit: Courtesy of Toronto Wolfpack.

Unbeaten in the league and with a three-game run in the Challenge Cup, the Wolfpack have come out of the gate pretty strong. How are you feeling about the season so far?

"We've got a fair amount of Super League experience in the team, and with those type of blokes in the side, we demand a pretty high standard.

"There's been times when we've won, and won quite comfortably, but we're not that happy with the way we've played because we've missed opportunities. We want to set our standards as high as possible. Each week, we're trying to get better and build towards something a bit bigger."

Do you have a base while you are in England? Any real characters in the team?

"When we're in England, we're based in Huddersfield and we have flats to live in. There are five of us that live in a house together in England and one of the boys is from Brisbane. His name's Tom Dempsey, and he's probably got one of the biggest chests I've ever seen. We've nicknamed him 'Chesty.'

"He's a unique unit. He's one of those guys that don't try to be funny, but just is because of how awkward he is. Some of the things I see him do crack me up. He wears shirts two or three sizes too small for him, but he just thinks that's the way it is.

"He's a real good bloke, and I love living with him."

You played Salford City in the third round of the Challenge Cup, and nearly beat them. Did it give you confidence that the Wolfpack could compete at the Super League level one day?

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"That was one where we thought let slip and got away from us. We thought we were matching it up with them pretty well in the second half, but we just got away from what we should have been doing.

"They had a couple of guys in the halves – Robert Lui and Michael Dodson – who had plenty of experience. That sort of experience, in those tight games, meant that they final came over the top of us.

"That's something we've learnt from, but it was a good opportunity to see where we rate against a team we see ourselves playing more regularly in the future."

Moimoi is the biggest name in the squad. What have you learnt playing footy alongside him?

"Fui's a legend. He's like a big kid aye; playing jokes on the boys but a genuine fella who looks after us. He's just a big human, and loves playing with the boys.

"His experience is second to none, and having that around the team is pretty good. Being a half and playing off the back of him – his go-forward is pretty good."