Sports

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

Rugby league is making its tentative first steps at truly establishing itself in North America.
January 24, 2017, 7:00pm
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It had all the hallmarks of a classic late 1980s Origin clash.

Cockroach legends Des Hasler, Cliff Lyons, Peter Sterling and Andrew Ettinghausen lined up for the Blues, while Cane Toads like 'King' Wally Lewis, Alfie Langer, Paul 'Fatty' Vautin and Trevor Gillmeister took the paddock for the Maroons.

Hoardings advertised Toohey's New, and the Aussie national anthem played before New South Wales ran out 30-18 winners.

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Yet the August 6, 1987 match still arguably stands as rugby league's greatest historical oddity: a State of Origin game played in Long Beach, California.

The game was organised by a group of former American football playing businessmen headed by Mike Mayer.

And while the crowd numbered somewhere between 7000 and 10000, the Origin clash was a financial disaster, failed to capture virtually any attention in California – and certainly didn't kick-start the long-hoped-for North American rugby league revolution.

New South Wales and Queensland played 'Game IV' of the 1987 State of Origin in Long Beach, California. Photo credit: Youtube.

"[It was] a small time, poorly promoted minor league event … a farce which was fortunately the biggest kept secret in LA that week," Hal Edwards, one of Mayer's partners, said, according to the Sydney Morning Herald.

Over the three decades since, attempts have been made to grow the game in North America. All of which have spluttered out soon after they began.

Yet now, in Toronto, rugby league may have finally gained the North American foothold it has long hoped for.

Over the weekend, the Toronto Wolfpack made its debut as a professional rugby league team in a pre-season friendly against Hull FC.

Despite being a odd combination of ex-Super League English and Irish players, a couple of Aussies and Kiwis and a handful of Americans and Canadians who got roster spots as part of a reality TV show, the Wolfpack managed to compete handily in a creditable 26-20 defeat at Hull's KCOM Stadium.

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All this against a side that finished third in the Super League last season, too.

The Wolfpack have been the passion project of Eric Perez, the chairman of Canadian Rugby League since 2014. Back then, Perez, along with a group of backers, lobbied the Super League to have a Toronto club join England's third tier of competition.

Hull FC hosted the Toronto Wolfpack at a pre-season friendly at KCOM Stadium last weekend. Source: Youtube.

They got the green light early last year, and have been building up the club's playing roster since. Considering this is essentially a expansion club playing two levels beyond England's best, the recruitment drive has been impressive.

Former Parramatta Eels cult hero, and New Zealand international, Fuifui Moimoi has been signed up, as has long-time Super League veteran back Craig Hall, who will be Toronto's first skipper.

Ex-Warrington Wolves duo James Laithwaite and Gary Wheeler are in the mix, while the recent financial collapse of the Bradford Bulls meant they were able to secure star prop Adam Sidlow.

Former England international, and Leigh Centurions coach, Paul Rowley will manage the Wolfpack – who will make their home at Toronto's Lamport Stadium; a 9,600-seater they'll share with local soccer and field hockey teams.

In perhaps the best sign for future success, Toronto has bought in legendary former Bradford, Wigan, Salford City and Great Britain coach Brian Noble as director of rugby league for the young club.

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"In the fullness of time, when people look back at it, they will think this is the next big stepping stone," Perez told Sky Sports.

"They will look at this and say 'this is the time when we took control of our game'. It's better than what it's been. All the oppression that it's been under for the last hundred years, we're wiping away in markets that don't care about class difference.

"I think this is going to be the time when things will move into a bigger and better direction."

Former Parramatta Eels prop, and Kiwis international, Fuifui Moimoi will play for the Toronto Wolfpack this season. Photo credit: Gerard Barrau/WikiCommons.

Perez's statements are overly dramatic, but the on-field cohesivness against Hull FC was impossible to deny.

Following the match, Hull coach Lee Radford said the Wolfpack would "walk through" the English third tier this year. Former Melbourne Storm winger, and opposing fullback, Mahe Fonua agreed, saying Toronto would be in the Super League in two years time.

The undeniable backdrop to the Wolfpack's rise is the awarding of the 2025 Rugby League World Cup to Canada and the United States last November. Their hosting of the 63-year-old tournament will mark its first trip out of Australasia or Europe ever.

While preaching patience to the success of the Wolfpack, legendary Australian rugby league writer Steve Mascord wrote in the SMH this week that the prospect of Toronto becoming a solid rugby league outpost is an exciting one for the sport.

"It can by tiny in an American sense, a pin-prick, and still drag players away from the NRL," Mascord wrote.

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"Imagine a Super League in 10 years with three North American franchises. Would you be laughing at it then, as you may well be in the wake of the James Segeyaro, Chris Sandow and Denny Solomona debacles?

"At the very least, Australasia would no longer have the player market cornered; it would be impossible to hang onto every decent player. It's the theme of a hundred science fiction movies.

Toronto coach Paul Rowley speaking after their 26-20 defeat to Hull FC last weekend. Source: Youtube.

"Only when the aliens invade do the earthlings learn to work together for the common good. And the NRL desperately needs an alien invasion right now.

After one more warm-up match, against Wigan on February 4, Toronto start their first official pro season against the London Skolars on March 4.

Their season has been organised so trips to the United Kingdom will be up to six weeks long, before they'll stay at home and host for several consecutive weeks later in the year to keep travel costs down.

Unlike the '87 Origin Game in Long Beach, Perez's Wolfpack concept has all the ingredients for rugby league actually having a good chance at making a foothold in North America.

There's no King Wally or Alfie in the mix, but, if they can make it stick, who really cares.