Toronto Wolfpack’s lockdown turmoil ‘no surprise’ to Leeds Rhinos chief Gary Hetherington

Sympathetic Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington says it is “no surprise” Toronto Wolfpack have succumbed as they have but insists the sport can not “rush” into any decisions about the crisis-torn club’s Super League future.

Thursday, 23rd July 2020, 6:00 am
Toronto Wolfpack's marquee signing Sonny Bill Williams. SWPix.com.

The Canadian outfit sensationally declared on Monday night it was unable to fulfil its 2020 fixtures – less than a fortnight before their planned restart against Hull KR in an Emerald Headingley triple-header.

Wolfpack’s finances, visa issues and Covid travel restrictions all played their part in leaving the newly-promoted club in turmoil.

Super League will now operate as an 11-club competition for the revamped season and will hold a board meeting this afternoon with the RFL to discuss possible sanctions against Toronto.

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Wolfpack, who made dual-code superstar Sonny Bill Williams the highest-paid player in the history of the game, fear they will not be allowed to return in 2021.

On Toronto’s demise, Hetherington said: “I don’t think it should come as a surprise.

“They were challenged anyway in that they don’t get any central distributions but with Covid and to not be able to play any home games in Canada it’s proved a bridge too far.

“They haven’t been able to access the furlough scheme which has been a God-send to all the other (UK) clubs and they have not been able to apply for the government loan either which has provided another lifeline for clubs.

Leeds Rhinos chief executive Gary Hetherington. Picture: Bruce Rollinson.

“So, it is hard to see anyone surviving all of that. It’s a unique challenge in front of them and all those reasons listed have made it particularly difficult.

“I’m not au fait with all the detail – there’s a lot of speculation around at the moment – but I’m sure we’ll learn more at Thursday’s meeting.

“It was predicted at the outset that some clubs would not survive this (pandemic).

“But we have, primarily through a combination of furlough, the government loan and the salary cuts accepted for players and staff across all the game.

Former Leeds Rhinos' centre Kallum Watkins is now at Toronto Wolfpack.

“That’s enabled 11 Super League clubs to get through but the 12th – Toronto – did not have some of those advantages.

“Without central distribution, too, it really shouldn’t come as a surprise that ultimately it yielded to that.”

What happens next will be crucial.

London Broncos, relegated on the final night of last season with a record number of points, have said they would be open to filling any space in Super League for the rest of this year or 2021 if required.

Some would argue Toronto should not be afforded a place in the elite next year after leaving the competition at such short notice before the season – shut down in March – was due to make its long-awaited return.

Clearly, it has had a damaging effect on Super League’s profile.

However, others would state that long list of aforementioned mitigating factors should allow them some leniency. Moreover, with its ability to break into the North American market – even if Williams does move back to the NRL – the expansion club are undoubtedly crucial in helping the competition secure a more valuable long-term broadcast deal from 2022.

Hetherington said: “There’s not going to be any significant effect this year; there’ll be five games every weekend rather than six and each club will miss out on playing Toronto at home. Given we’re going to be behind closed doors for a part of that anyway, it’s not much of an issue, but clearly the issue is about next season.

“With that, the game needs to take time and not rush into any quick decisions about what happens next.

“It needs to consider all the options – and all the implications.”

Although Toronto owner David Argyle has promised the players they will continue to be paid, he has told them – due to the ongoing situation – they are free to sign for other clubs if they can find deals elsewhere.

Agents have offered players around Super League clubs and Williams is also interesting both New Zealand Warriors and Sydney Roosters on a short-term contract.

However, given their own financial state, Leeds – whose former stars Kallum Watkins, Brad Singleton and Anthony Mullally are with Toronto – are not planning to take up any opportunities to sign from Wolfpack.

Hetherington said: “Richard (Agar) has said all along that our priority is to retain the players in the current Rhinos squad.

“There’s loads of youth and ability in the current squad and that is the focus for us rather than looking for new players so that’s where we stand.”