Great start for professional league in Canada;
Rugby League’s Wolfpack win game, fights, fans
Home opener draws a large crowd despite ugly weather, a positive sign for a sport hoping to expand internationally.
The Wolfpack's Dan Fleming loses the ball as two Oxford players converge on him. Toronto had its way with the visitors in the team's home opener, winning 62-12. (Steve Russell / Toronto Star) | Morgan Campbell
Sat., May 6, 2017
The Toronto Wolfpack throttled Oxford 62-12 at Lamport Stadium Saturday afternoon, but the final score hardly mattered to the folks running North America’s first pro rugby league franchise.
A team of full-time pros is supposed to put up a lopsided score against a squad full of hobbyists like the one Oxford fielded.
Winning over sports fans in a crowded Toronto market remains the stiffest challenge the Wolfpack will face competing in English Rugby League’s third division. In attracting 6,281 loud and passionate fans to Lamport Stadium on a chilly, drizzly day, the Wolfpack can confidently claim to have claimed an early lead in a never-ending competition for sports fans’ attention.
“I just knew (Torontonians) would take to something that was genuine, had passion behind it,” said Wolfpack CEO Eric Perez. “They like a Toronto team that can put wins on the board, and we seem to be that.”
Toronto’s first home game represented the first real test in Rugby League’s transatlantic experiment. In its 2014 strategic plan, the Super League identified international expansion as a goal and the Wolfpack mark the league’s boldest attempt to grow its overseas profile.
The club spent the off-season signing players well-known to rugby league aficionados. Marquee signing Fui Fui Moi Moi starred in Australia’s National Rugby League, and has played prop for New Zealand’s national team.
Toronto’s road games have drawn larger-than normal crowds at third-division clubs, with hometown fans eager to see recognizable names, even as they trounced the locals. Through six weeks of league competition, the Wolfpack has outscored opponents 372-49.
Toronto’s home opener quickly fell into that pattern, with the Wolfpack scoring a third-minute try and putting up 34 points before Oxford managed its first try.
By the 69th minute, frustration bubbled over. The teams may disagree on who started the fight but Toronto’s Jake Emmitt finished it, grabbing an Oxford player by the collar, taking several swings, then giving cheering fans a thumbs-up as he left the pitch with a red card.
“Quite a few of the fans enjoyed the punching up,” Wolfpack captain Craig Hall said. “But that’s not what we’re about.”
Toronto’s preferred style of play — fast-paced with intricate passing — highlighted the skill disparity that often defines the third division.
In two weeks Toronto hosts the Barrow Raiders, a fully professional squad that has also run off a series of one-sided wins. But Oxford fielded a team on Saturday that included two construction workers, a teacher, and a PhD student in entomology.
Many spectators recognized Toronto and Oxford were as evenly matched as the Blue Jays and the Intercounty Maple Leafs, and that Saturday’s game didn’t promise much competitive drama. But they also accept blowout wins as a necessary step toward promotion.
“They’ve demonstrated throughout the season that they have that calibre of play and I look forward to them moving up through the leagues,” said Port Hope resident Galen Flaherty, who attended the game with a group of friends. “There’s an appetite for rugby here. Just like Toronto FC succeeded, I think you can see a similar thing for the Wolfpack.”
TFC opened at home 10 years ago after a string of road games and drew a surprisingly large crowd on a cold, wet, gray day. That home opener drew three times as many spectators as the Wolfpack’s did, highlighting the pent-up local demand for the sport. While rugby league lacks soccer’s latent fan base, the Wolfpack’s win streak could help grow crowds at the 9,600-seat Lamport Stadium.
“We’re Canadians (and) and we support our teams,” said Amanda Andres, who travelled to the game from St. Catharines. “We’ll support our teams regardless of the score. We’re winning, so we can’t really complain.”