In 1991 I was fortunate to accompany the London Monarchs on a road trip to San Antonio, New York and Sacramento. That three-game swing in the long-gone World League would be the template if the NFL ever stopped teasing us and put a team in the UK. Strange to relate given the massive difference in scope and size of the sports that rugby league, ever the innovator (or promotor of barmy ideas, take your pick), will be doing something just that this season.
Even odder is that it is happening in the third tier of the domestic game, League 1, so let’s give a big welcome to the Toronto Wolfpack and what better way to introduce them than a third-round Challenge Cup tie against Siddal on Saturday. As bizarre as that sounds there’s something else – the game is being shown on the BBC website. Viewing figures for a first-round game was a very decent 20,000 and with Halifax scenery that would set off plenty of Kate Bush impersonations, as well as the novelty value, it should attract a few more.
Seemingly sensible people are involved with the Wolfpack and these people are being far from sensible with their money. A bond is being held by the RFL and visiting teams will have all their transport costs paid. League 1 comprises some famous names – Hunslet, Whitehaven and Workington – and some odd ones for those not paying attention – Newcastle, Oxford and Coventry for example and there are official trips, which are a bit of a bargain, for anyone who fancies seeing their part-time team being pasted by full-time professionals. If that fails to tempt anyone all Wolfpack games are to be shown on Premier Sports.
In a piece of symbolism hard to ignore Toronto were going to train at Odsal but the Bulls’ troubles means they are now at Brighouse Rangers, a founder member of the Northern Union in 1895 and, rather neatly, almost equidistant from Bradford and Siddal. Toronto’s first five league games are in the UK – starting in the capital no less against London Skolars on 4 March – before they go ‘home’ and play in the 10,000-capacity Lamport Stadium, now christened The Den, for another five-week stretch.
They have an impressive social media presence that puts many Super League clubs, and plenty in other sports, to shame and an impressive coaching staff that includes Paul Rowley, previously successful at Leigh, and Brian Noble, a multi-trophy winner with Bradford in their heyday, and a former GB coach.
While the logo does seem close to a craft lager company set up by two union players there is no doubting the originality of their quest to establish rugby league in North America. The game is always full of surprises but it is still weird to think that the road to the 2025 World Cup in Canada and the US begins in Halifax.