TORONTO –The party kept going after the final whistle of the Toronto Wolfpack‘s 24-6 comeback win over Featherstone Rovers on Saturday in the Million Pound Game.
Fans remained crammed in the beer garden at the north end of Lamport Stadium, raising their glasses in celebration. Outside the stadium, others lined up to get into the team’s merchandise store.
A day to remember for Toronto sports fans, many of whom are still learning rugby league. And possibly a turning point in a sport whose presence at the top level has been limited largely to Australia, New Zealand and parts of England and France.
Rugby league is about to hit the next level in North America, with Toronto securing promotion to the top-tier Super League thanks to Saturday’s victory. After just three years of existence, the Wolfpack will now take their place alongside 10 English and one French team in the top rugby league circuit in the Northern Hemisphere.
“If it’s not the biggest, it’s one of the biggest things that I’ve ever been involved with,” said Wolfpack director of rugby Brian Noble, a rugby league icon who won everything the sport has to offer as both player and coach.
“I think it’s huge for the sport. I think it’s tailor-made for North America. And there has to be a second and a third (North American) franchise at some stage,” he added.
“I think it’s a massive opportunity for rugby league,” echoed Toronto captain Josh McCrone, who left the elite National Rugby League in his native Australia after buying into the Wolfpack vision.
Toronto coach Brian McDermott, whose trophy case is already brimming with hardware from his time running Leeds Rhinos, saw it as a rare case in which a franchise impacts its sport.
“That doesn’t happen very often,” said the former British Royal Marine and England international. “The game usually impacts on teams. This team’s going to impact the whole game of rugby league. And so it should do.”
Ralph Rimmer, head of the sport’s governing body, was on hand to see the Toronto win. He recalled the debate over whether to admit a North American team.
“It was a big risk … It was a real leap of faith,” said the CEO of the Rugby Football League.
Others are already looking to join the Wolfpack in North America. Wolfpack co-founder Eric Perez plans to bring a team to Ottawa, likely in 2021. Another group is looking to install a team in New York.
And Rimmer says there is also interest from other European cities in coming on board, although he declined to detail who.
While the RFL has given Toronto the green light to join the Super League, the Wolfpack will play the first year in the top tier under their existing agreement with the governing body. That means paying for visiting teams’ travel and accommodation costs, a burden eased by a sponsorship deal with Air Transat.
Toronto will also not get a cut of the Super League’s Sky TV broadcast deal, which is worth more than two million pounds ($3.3 million) annually to each club, unless a new agreement is struck. That’s enough to cover the Super League salary cap.
Saturday’s win was Toronto’s 28th in 29 outings in 2019 and 23rd straight.
For a while it looked like the Wolfpack might fall at the last promotion hurdle for the second year in a row as Featherstone gave Toronto all it could handle. But the transatlantic team kept coming and imposed its will in the final 25 minutes.
Toronto trailed 6-4 at the break but, with the wind at their back in the second, took the lead in the 57th minute when Blake Wallace crashed over the line for a 10-6 lead with the conversion. A penalty against former Toronto forward Jack Bussey gave the Wolfpack the ball leading up to the score.
Bussey wanted no part of tackler Tom Olbison, using his arm to roughly fend off the Wolfpack forward before playing the ball. Referee Chris Kendall took exception and Toronto took over possession.
“That’s a huge call and that turned the whole game, I thought,” said Featherstone coach Ryan Carr, a 31-year-old Australian who doubles as an assistant coach with Leeds Rhinos of the Super League. “We were in front at that stage and we were in good field position and it just sort of flipped the game on its head from there.”
Five minutes after the Wallace try, Bodene Thompson ran through the Featherstone defence to stretch the lead to 16-6 with the conversion. Joe Mellor added an insurance try in the 70th with Wallace kicking a penalty in the 80th minute.
McCrone also scored a try for Toronto. Gareth O’Brien kicked two conversions and Wallace added a single conversion.
Alex Sutcliffe scored a try for Featherstone. Dane Chisholm booted a conversion.
The lowest-ranked of the five teams to make the playoffs, Featherstone arrived on the back of three straight wins on the road _ defeating No. 4 Leigh Centurions (34-18), No. 3 York City Knights (30-4) and No. 2 Toulouse Olympique (36-12).
Like Toronto, Toulouse is a fully professional outfit. Featherstone is not although its ranks are boosted by young talent sent from Leeds to the Championship side to develop.
Featherstone finished the regular season with a 17-10-0 record despite losing five of its first nine matches. Toronto went 26-1-0 during the regular season, beating Toulouse in the semifinal to send the French side to the preliminary final against Featherstone.
Toronto began life in 2017 in the third-tier League 1 _ the first step on its journey to Super League. After winning promotion to the Championship after that first season, it fell short in last year’s promotion showdown in a tense 4-2 loss to London Broncos.
Saturday’s match determined the Super League replacement for the Broncos, relegated on points difference after a 10-19-0 season.
The Wolfpack’s lone loss this season was a 46-16 setback March 9 in Toulouse. Toronto sealed the League Leaders’ Shield as regular season champion on July 21 with a victory over Widnes.
Toronto won two earlier meetings with Featherstone this season but both were close games _ 23-14 at Featherstone in April and 22-18 in July in Toronto.
Featherstone showed Saturday’s game back home on a big screen at its LD Nutrition Stadium.