Peter Smith: Trans-Atlantic competition does not work at Championship level
There will be sighs of relief across the Betfred Championship when the inevitable happens and Toronto Wolfpack are promoted to Super League.
The Canadian team sit 10 points clear at the top of the table and three more wins will guarantee they finish the regular season as league leaders.
Under the top-five play-off system they will need to win only two play-off ties to secure their place in the top-flight for 2020 and it’s probably fair to say most of their rivals will be pleased to see them go.
That’s not particularly because of any prejudice against the relative newcomers to the sport. Toronto are a well-run club who, despite some bumps in the road, have made friends during the three seasons they have been operating.
Since Brian McDermott took over as coach they have been dominant in their league matches – losing only one of 19 – and the disciplinary problems they used to have appear to have been dealt with.
However, a trans-Atlantic competition doesn’t work at semi-professional level.
Unlike most of their rivals, Toronto can afford to be big spenders and have effectively assembled a Super League squad.
Therefore it is far from a level playing field when they take on the likes of Dewsbury Rams or Batley Bulldogs, whose budget is a tiny fraction of Wolfpack’s.
Then, of course, there is the travel.
Due to the winter and spring weather in their neck of the woods, Wolfpack play their early-season games away from home before staging matches at their Lamport Stadium base.
That obviously gives them a run of home games at the business end of the season, which can be an advantage, but in other ways the odds are stacked heavily against visiting teams.
Dewsbury, for example, had to field a very weakened line-up when they travelled to Canada last month.
Having been pipped 22-17 at home by Toronto, Rams were crushed 70-6 over there.
Visa requirements are part of the problem as issues such as past convictions can limit who makes the journey.
Also, European teams fly on the Thursday before a Saturday game which means players who are not full-time have to take a couple of days off work. For many that is not financially or logistically possible.
That won’t be a problem for Super League clubs next year, but they will need to get the visa situation resolved well in advance and, because of the ridiculous ‘loop fixtures’, some of them will have to make the trip twice.
It is possible, though, for foreign teams to win in Canada. Featherstone Rovers, who are there this weekend, did it last year and, famously, London Broncos won the 2018 Million Pound Match at Lamport Stadium to secure promotion.
However, Toronto have been used to winning at home – and winning big – and obviously that has helped them grow their support base as fans of any sport are more likely to stick with a successful team.
The official crowd for last Saturday’s visit of Halifax was 6,749. Both Salford Red Devils and London drew less than 3,000 for their Super League fixture. The vast majority of Toronto’s fan base are new to rugby league and roots are being laid down in a potentially lucrative new market. There is no doubt, even given the logistical problems already outlined, Wolfpack have been good for the sport. Their inclusion has given League One, where they started, the Championship and rugby league generally some much-needed publicity.
As well as new supporters, they have brought in money and sponsors and the code’s horizons have been broadened. Still, controversy continues and Championship clubs are unhappy about the prospect of this year’s Grand Final being staged by the highest-placed team.
Should it, like the Super League version, be played on a neutral venue? Yes, of course. Are the Championship clubs right to be upset at the prospect of the promotion decider being played on the other side of the Atlantic? Not at all.
Wolfpack have been favourites from the start and Toronto has always been in Canada. The rules were agreed at the start of the season and part-way through is not the time to change them.