With the Million Pound game just 2 days away, Stephen Owen gives us the latest insight into rugby league life in Toronto.
Thursday, October 3
Day 2 in Toronto and it seems we’ve brought the British weather with us! The Torontonians tell us that the temperature was in the mid-to-late 20s on Monday and the sun has been shining, but it’s been rainy and cold today. That hasn’t dampened the mood around the Wolfpack camp though.
We went to watch the Toronto squad train at their home ground of Lamport Stadium and the Wolfpack looked in buoyant mood to say the least. It was officially confirmed shortly before the training session that the winner of Saturday’s match is guaranteed a place in Super League for the 2020 season – which has no doubt contributed to everyone having that extra spring in their step.
The journey to Lamport Stadium from the city centre is a straightforward one – with this being such a major city nowhere is difficult to get to, whether that be in a taxi or on public transport.
Interestingly, the Wolfpack were practising drop goal sets which shows they’re expecting Saturday’s match against Featherstone to be tight – and of course their star full-back Gareth O’Brien has history with drop goals in the Million Pound Game – who could forget his astonishing one-pointer to save Salford from relegation in 2016!
There seems to be a clear togetherness amongst the Wolfpack players, spending so much time in each other’s company looks like it’s certainly brought a good team spirit, something that has no doubt contributed to the club’s 22-game winning run.Toronto is a very vibrant city and the players seem to move around freely on bicycles or the local tram network. Prop forward Ashton Sims is one of several players who enjoy the Canadian lifestyle so much that they’ve decided to live permanently in the city.
Speaking to members of staff at the club earlier today, they’re expecting to post the “house full” signs on Saturday with another record crowd heading to the Lamport Stadium. It’s easy to see why so many fans flock to the ground, I had a look in the impressive club shop just outside the stadium and they’ve displayed some of the creative gameday posters that they’ve made to promote previous matches. The staff involved at the club are affable and exuberant – essential qualities for a young organisation trying to make their way in a crowded sports market.
The fans who come to the game are treated to what rugby league veteran Jon Wilkin described as “the best pound for pound matchday experience” he has ever come across. When you consider that Wilkin has played at the elite level in England, France, Australia and New Zealand – that’s a huge compliment.
I also learned today that one of the people who sampled that matchday experience the last time the Wolfpack played at Lamport, was Australian Rugby League World Cup winner Valentine Holmes. The former Queensland flier lives in North America now as he’s a part of the NFL’s New York Jets practice squad.
I just wonder if his NFL ambitions don’t come to fruition, is he someone who could perhaps decide to come back to Rugby League while still living in North America? He won an NRL Grand Final in 2016 with Cronulla alongside the Wolfpack centre Ricky Leutele, and when I mentioned this to Toronto Director of Rugby Brian Noble, he referenced how North Americans like big names to market their franchises; and Holmes would certainly fit that bill, so who knows?!
Holmes won’t be at Saturday’s Million Pound Game as he’s back in New York with the Jets – but one person who will be at the game is the Mayor of Toronto, John Tory. This is big news. A hugely significant figure around the city, this is a clear indication of how the Wolfpack have really come to the attention of the fourth biggest city in North America.
Political support is something that could be essential in bringing a resolution to the ‘Pack’s situation regarding their home ground of Lamport Stadium. This isn’t the most salubrious of home venues, but it’s in a nice suburb of Toronto called Liberty Village – and the stadium for the majority of the season lends itself well to what the Wolfpack need.
However, over here it can be snowing all the way through to April, and for a stadium that doesn’t have underground heating or a roof to shelter from the snow this is problematic considering the rugby league season starts just a few weeks into the calendar year.
As we’ve seen this season, the Wolfpack have played “home” games in England as double headers which isn’t ideal. Looking around the city there doesn’t seem to be many solutions, apart from maybe the Rogers Centre – home to the Toronto Blue Jays. This stadium has a retractable roof but, has a capacity of well over 50,000 and would no doubt come at a substantial cost – so this alternative might not be feasible just yet.