Toronto Wolfpack saga cements rugby league as tiny fish in big sporting pond – Peter Smith

TORONTO WOLFPACK’S exclusion from Betfred Super League next year is, above all, incredibly sad.
Toronto Wolfpack's Lamport Stadium. Picture: Vaughn Ridley/ Wolfpack's Lamport Stadium. Picture: Vaughn Ridley/
Toronto Wolfpack's Lamport Stadium. Picture: Vaughn Ridley/

It is sad for the individuals who have gone months without pay, sad for the 10,000 new fans the club have introduced to rugby league and sad for everyone who believes rugby league can ever be more than a tiny fish in a very big sporting pond.

The Toronto decision was about more than just one club.

Wolfpack represent northern hemisphere rugby league’s ambition to shake off its north of England roots and expand into new markets.

Sonny Bill-Williams during his time with Toronto Wolfpack. Picture: Allan McKenzie/ Bill-Williams during his time with Toronto Wolfpack. Picture: Allan McKenzie/
Sonny Bill-Williams during his time with Toronto Wolfpack. Picture: Allan McKenzie/
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That was rejected firmly earlier this week when seven clubs, plus Super League’s chief executive Robert Elstone, voted not to readmit Toronto to the competition for 2021. There was one abstention.

Hats off to Leeds Rhinos, St Helens and Catalans Dragons for looking at the bigger picture and voting in favour, along with the Rugby Football League (RFL). That the RFL, the sport’s governing body, has the same voting influence as one top-flight club tells its own story.

The clubs now hold the power and can anybody really be surprised if they vote in their own self-interest, rather than that of the game as a whole?

What was a shock was the unanimous decision 24 hours later to run with a 12-team competition next season, which means an extra club will have to be found from somewhere.

Super League chief executive Robert Elstone. Picture: Allan McKenzie/ League chief executive Robert Elstone. Picture: Allan McKenzie/
Super League chief executive Robert Elstone. Picture: Allan McKenzie/
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That process is far from straightforward and is likely to lead to more ill-feeling as rivals jostle for a place at the top table.

Shots were fired by Featherstone Rovers chairman Mark Campbell – who blasted Super League at the same time as saying his club deserve a place – even before the 12-team announcement was made and Toulouse Olympique have also been quick to show their interest.

It is not yet clear what criteria will be used to pick the promoted team.

According to Super League, that will “be discussed and released at an appropriate time”.

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It might have been a better idea to sort all that out before agreeing to add a club to the competition, particularly in the middle of a pandemic when the Championship, where the promoted side will presumably come from, has been shut down for seven months.

What happens if no clubs meet the criteria, or one or more clubs outside the competition do, but some inside it don’t?

One thing is certain, whichever club gets the nod, it won’t bring anything like the profile Toronto did to Super League.

As an organisation, Wolfpack are far from blameless.

Though they haven’t been able to tap into the UK government’s loan, available to most of their rivals, not paying wages is unforgivable and Toronto’s withdrawal in July left Super League in a difficult position.

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Clearly, they could not have predicted a pandemic striking at the start of their first season in Super League, but their recruitment was off-target and money wasn’t spent wisely.

Sonny Bill Williams was a publicity coup, but throwing most of their cash at a small number of players and running with a tiny squad was never going to work in a 29-round competition.

Where the club goes now remains to be seen, but a top-flight return looks a long way away. If Wolfpack continue, they may be able to make a go of things yet.

The Canadian outfit have created an event culture at home games, where the result – and opposition – are secondary. So, in theory anyway, playing in a lower division against lesser rivals, may not affect their home gates, but it will certainly take some of the interest out of Super League.

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Elstone said an “independent committee of sports industry experts”, unanimously decided “operating a team in a fiercely competitive North American sports market was non-strategic and added no material incremental revenue to Super League in the short or medium term”.

Toronto is the biggest city in Canada, with a population of 2.93 million.

Whether this latest development will have any bearing on the competition’s next broadcast deal remains to be seen, but rugby league – yet again – has made itself look short sighted and parochial and those are not great selling points.

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