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Can Toronto's English rugby league club teach NFL to cross Atlantic?

All of the Toronto Wolfpack's road games are in England, creating a logistical challenge as they play their first season in the Rugby Football League system. Courtesy Toronto Wolfpack

The captain of Canada's first professional rugby league team is an Englishman who has never set foot in Canada. "I don't like polar bears," explained Craig Hall, failing to stifle a grin. "So I've never been."

He's not alone. The bizarre truth is that few, if any, Toronto Wolfpack RLFC players have ever visited the city they represent. As members of the North America's only active trans-Atlantic pro team, they are competing in England's Rugby Football League. The Wolfpack's inaugural season began in late February, and so far they have played only road games.

It might not feel that way to the players. Most, like Hall, are English -- hailing from the same northern towns and cities where rugby league's roots lie. The sport was born there in the late 19th century as a working-class breakaway from rugby union, whose organisers were so committed to amateurism that they barred players from receiving compensation for time spent away from their jobs.

The two codes have evolved in different directions, with superficial similarities but very distinct rules and methods. Ironically, given their respective origins, it is rugby union which now offers greater opportunities for players to make money around the world. Only England and Australia have sustained fully professional domestic rugby league competitions.

Enter Wolfpack CEO Eric Perez. A 37-year-old Canadian who spent the early part of his adult life working in advertising, he became hooked on rugby league during a stint in the UK. He returned home to found a national governing body for the sport -- Canada Rugby League -- in 2010.

Working together with a friend, Cory Tukeli, he relaunched the national team, created four new clubs in Toronto and produced a weekly TV show for Sportsnet. "It all led up to me starting the Wolfpack, which was always the plan from day one," Perez said. "I just couldn't tell anyone that, because they'd think I was crazy."

Many people might still perceive him that way. What the Wolfpack are doing -- competing full time against opponents across the Atlantic from where they are based -- is nearly unprecedented in professional sports (the NFL-backed World League of American Football had teams in the United States and Europe for two seasons in the early 1990s, and last year Argentina's Jaguares joined Super Rugby, whose other teams are based in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and Japan).

The NFL has been flirting with such an idea but, even after a decade of annual regular-season games in London, remains unready to take that plunge.

"I think they're watching us now," Perez said of the NFL, "because we're the ones that moved on it."


COMPARISONS BETWEEN the RFL and NFL should be kept in perspective for the time being. An uninitiated North American sports fan who'd pitched up at Toronto's recent game away to the Keighley Cougars expecting a spectacle akin to American football's International Series would have been in for a surprise.

The crowd at Cougar Park numbered in the hundreds, not the tens of thousands that the NFL draws to Wembley or Twickenham. Kicks routinely sail out over the shallow stands, catching on the branches of trees or clanging off the roof of the gas station behind the goalposts at one end. The scoreboard is literally a board updated by a man hanging numbered pieces of card onto metal hooks.

This is not a setting the Perez would have chosen for his team's first season. He wanted the Wolfpack to enter directly into England's top division, Super League, but was informed by the RFL that they would have to start in League 1 -- the third of three professional tiers.

There are bigger teams, and bigger towns, than Keighley to visit, even at this level, but the Wolfpack have embraced this reality now that they are in it. All of Toronto's League 1 games are being streamed live by CBC in Canada and aired on satellite TV channel Premier Sports in the UK.

At Cougar Park, Toronto's director of rugby, Brian Noble, provides colour commentary from a makeshift gantry. His appointment represented a significant coup. Noble has both captained and coached Great Britain's rugby league team and was the first coach ever to win three Super League Grand Finals.

"Please don't take this the wrong way -- I'm quite a humble guy normally, and I'm not trying to be big-headed -- but I've done most other things in the game," he explained when asked what persuaded him to sign up to such a project. "Building something from scratch, particularly with the dynamics of travel, the logistics involved there, was a challenge that I couldn't refuse."

It is precisely the logistical aspect of this project that might be most fascinating to executives from other pro sports with trans-Atlantic ambitions. Although their players have not yet been over to visit, the Wolfpack will indeed play their home games in Toronto, at Lamport Stadium, a 9,600-seat multipurpose venue.

The team's League 1 schedule has, for the most part, been built to minimise travel disruption. Other than a three-week stretch in which they play home-road-home, starting with their May 6 Toronto debut, the Wolfpack will play multiple games on either side of the Atlantic before having to head back the other way.

The Wolfpack are required to cover the costs of all teams traveling to face them in Canada -- although Perez said that, in practice, flights and hotels will be provided by team sponsors.

For Noble and the coaching staff, the greater challenge has been setting up practice facilities on both sides of the Atlantic. In England, the Wolfpack are sharing facilities with the Yorkshire-based semi-professional club Brighouse Rangers -- once a founding member of the RFL.

They've doubled up on practice equipment, shipping out a full set to Toronto so it will be ready and waiting when they arrive. And what about home comforts to help players feel less like they are living on the road? When the NFL's New York Jets travelled to London to face the Miami Dolphins in 2015, they brought 350 toilet paper rolls with them to save players from having to use the supposedly thinner British version.

Noble chuckles at the premise. "Our players are an unbelievable group, and so are our staff," he said. "We understand there's an element of sacrifice. ... It's not got to the stage where they need their own toilet paper. And it never will."


AMONG THE MOST commonly cited concerns about placing an NFL team permanently in London is the idea that few players or coaches would want to join such a team. To spend a substantial chunk of each year in a foreign country, far away from family and friends, is viewed as a major disincentive.

And yet, the Wolfpack have been able to build from scratch a group that is positively thrilled by this opportunity to see a little more of the world. Hall, for all his quips about polar bears, left Super League club Wakefield Trinity to play for Toronto. He talks enthusiastically about the possibility of his 4-year-old daughter spending her summer holidays in Canada.

The head coach, Paul Rowley, is even more blunt. "So the worst thing in the world is you're going to have to go abroad, to Toronto, one of the best cities in the world, where it's 30 degrees [Celsius] straight through summer, and you're with all your mates? Well, if that's the worst that life's going to bring you, then bring it on."

Perhaps it is all just a question of perspective. Toronto's players and staff are earning nothing like the money of their NFL counterparts. The salary cap for teams in any of the RFL's three divisions is a modest £1.85 million, and Rowley insists the Wolfpack are nowhere close to that limit -- even if they are spending more than rivals in League 1.

It is a figure which also highlights why this gamble on a trans-Atlantic team is not quite such a crazy move as it might initially appear. Even in a worst-case scenario, the financial losses that a team could sustain are tiny relative to those in other sports.

The flipside of that coin is that it is also hard to see how anyone would hope to get rich from such a venture. Leeds Rhinos, one of Super League's most successful and best supported teams, posted an annual turnover of £10.9 million in 2014-15, with £1.1 million in pretax profit, both substantial increases on the year before.

Perez, though, believes that trans-Atlantic play will grant all teams the opportunity to aim higher. With new audiences come new revenue streams, and he is adamant that there are millions of prospective fans in North America waiting to be converted.

In part, that comes down to his personal conviction that rugby league is "the most Canadian sport you could possibly get." He contends that his countrymen share a common heritage with those working-class Brits who launched this sport in the first place. "It fits exactly in with our ideals," Perez said. "It's got finesse, hard-hitting pace ... every once in a while, some fisticuffs."

He also has more tangible reasons to feel confident, saying there's been contact from groups in Montreal, Newfoundland, New York and Boston -- each backed by owners of existing North American sports franchises, although he wouldn't say which ones -- showing interest in launching RFL teams of their own.

Of course, it is his job, and his passion, to sell this positive story. It is easy to get swept along with Perez's enthusiasm, but the team's 3,000 season tickets sold so far -- whilst impressive by League 1 standards -- are hardly sufficient to suggest a global sporting revolution has begun.

On the field, at least, we can say that the Wolfpack are off to a positive start. Despite trailing at halftime, Toronto rallied to beat Keighley by a convincing 48-21 margin, remaining undefeated after five matches between League 1 and the Challenge Cup, a knockout competition that features RFL teams from Super League down to the amateur level. The Wolfpack's only loss so far came in a January friendly against the Super League's Hull F.C.

There was even time for a brief appearance for one of the Wolfpack's handful of North American players -- most of whom are still too raw to see the field. Ryan Burroughs, age 25 and born in Manassas, Virginia, only discovered rugby league two years ago but quickly fell in love with the sport.

Like Hall, he has never been to Toronto, but he might have a better handle than most of his teammates on what the audience up there needs to hear.

"I think people are going to like rugby league in Toronto," he said. "It's hockey on grass, basically."