Peter Smith: Acid tests starting to loom for Toronto Wolfpack ahead of home bow

Toronto Wolfpack coach Paul Rowley. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)
Toronto Wolfpack coach Paul Rowley. (Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe)
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SO far in their brief existence, Toronto Wolfpack have been a sledgehammer ruthlessly cracking a series of League One nuts.

The sport’s latest great adventure will, however, face some acid tests over the next couple of weeks, beginning in the Challenge Cup tomorrow.

Ryan Brierley swapped Huddersfield Giants for Toronto Wolfpack this week. (PIcture: SWPIx.com)

Ryan Brierley swapped Huddersfield Giants for Toronto Wolfpack this week. (PIcture: SWPIx.com)

The Canadian outfit, who have an English base in Brighouse, near Halifax, have been drawn against one of Super League’s form teams – and their predecessors as the code’s big spenders – Salford Red Devils in the fifth round.

It will not be their first meeting with full-time opposition – they saw off London Broncos in the previous round – but it represents a significant step up in class. To date, the only team to give Toronto a real test have been Halifax community side Siddal, who led twice before going down 14-6 in the opening stage of the competition.

Since then, Toronto have proved too strong for a series of part-time teams in League One, the lowest tier of the professional game. They have won all their five league fixtures, scoring 310 points and conceding 37.

Whitehaven and Keighley Cougars gave a good accounts of themselves, but London Skolars (76-0), Doncaster (82-6) and Crusaders (80-0) were swept aside.

Toronto, with a rich backer, have not been afraid to splash the cash and the reality is they could have romped through League One at half the cost.

Peter Smith

None of that is surprising. While other teams at that level are made up of enthusiastic youngsters, rugby league novices and old hands in the twilight of their careers, Toronto have assembled a formidable squad of full-time players, many at the peak of their game.

This week they reportedly paid a five-figure sum to Huddersfield for free-scoring half-back Ryan Brierley, a player who ran in 133 tries in 125 appearances for then-Championship side Leigh Centurions, mainly against better opposition than he will be facing this year.

It seems like a case of overkill.

Toronto, with a rich backer, have not been afraid to splash the cash and the reality is they could have romped through League One at half the cost.

They are, however, building a squad with Super League in mind and the trip to high-flying Salford will give an indication of how far they are down that road.

Salford, after years of unwise spending on big-name players who did not deliver, have taken a more pragmatic approach and are reaping the benefits, ending the Easter period in third place in Super League. They are more battled-hardened and will be keen to prove a point, so the scene is set for a fascinating showdown.

Whatever the result, it is unlikely to deflect Toronto from their long-term goal. However, another major challenge is looming next month when Wolfpack take on Oxford in their first home game. After all the hype, close attention will be paid to the size of the crowd and how the club handle the logistics of a fixture on their own turf. Travel is being subsidised for visiting teams, but one question yet to be answered is if semi-professional players will be willing to take time off work and cross the Atlantic to take part in a game that will almost inevitably result in a hefty defeat.

The forthcoming series of one-sided shellackings may not be the best way to introduce new supporters to the sport, but Toronto are staking everything on locals flocking to watch a winning team.

So far, everything seems to have gone smoothly, but the next month will offer a better indication of whether Toronto has a long-term future in the game.

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