27th August 2017
Last Saturday, in order to get to the Allan A Lamport Stadium from downtown Toronto – a distance of just over two miles – I took the 504 streetcar along King Street heading directly west. I arrived early and went for a beer in the nearby Shoeless Joe’s, where the Toronto Blue Jays were in action on the screens in the second of their weekend triple-header against the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. However, the purpose of my journey was not televised Major League Baseball, but live rugby league in the (British) Kingstone Press League 1: Toronto Wolfpack vs Newcastle Thunder.
We do live in times that are, occasionally, slightly bewildering.
The division has now entered the Super Eights phase of the season, in which the top 8 sides play each other to decide (eventually) which two teams will be promoted to the Championship. As the points accumulated during the season are carried forward, Toronto Wolfpack are in a strong position, as they lead the table from Barrow and Whitehaven. For their part, Newcastle were in 7th position, with an outside chance of finishing in the top 5 and engaging in the final rounds of knock-out play-offs.
I suspected that the match might be somewhat one-sided. Toronto have recruited ambitiously in their playing and coaching staff – the former Great Britain coach, Brian Noble, is the Director of Rugby – and had lost only one (and drawn one) of their 18 league and Super Eight matches to date, averaging 57 points per game. And so it proved. The left-winger Liam Kay went over for the first of his three tries inside two minutes and the home side ended up scoring a total of nine tries in a 50-0 win.
(A curious statistical aside. I have seen Newcastle Thunder play three times: once here and twice in their previous guise as Gateshead Thunder against the Hunslet Hawks at the South Leeds Stadium. On each occasion, they have conceded exactly 50 points).
The outcome of the match not being in much doubt, I was more interested in the presentation of the game and the local response to it. It was all pleasingly encouraging. The Lamport Stadium has several tiers of elevated open seating, running the full length of both touchlines, which provide good views of the action: ideal for a warm and sunny afternoon such as this, less so if Toronto experiences one of its occasional summer thunderstorms. The row of concession stands populating the King Street end of the ground, behind the goalposts, was also heavily patronised throughout the afternoon.
The sizeable crowd – over 7,500, according to the Wolfpack’s website – enjoyed the home side’s dominance, the volume of cheering not seeming to diminish as the later tries were run in. Interestingly, many spectators stayed around in their small groups after the game had finished, remaining on the seating or at the edge of the pitch: it was a social gathering on a pleasant Saturday afternoon.
As at other sporting venues in North America, there were a plentiful number of beer-sellers doing the rounds up and down the terraces. Food and drink is a significant component of these events and so I treated myself to a Big Mamma’s Cheesy Dog (with tomato sauce) from one of the fast-food stalls. It was as delicious as the name suggested.
The demographics of the crowd covered all ages with many family groups, a significant proportion of women and – it seemed to me – a plethora of Canadian accents, rather than those of casual visitors from Britain or the Antipodes. The loudest gasps were heard at the collisions between the respective prop forwards, perhaps not surprisingly as one of those wearing a Wolfpack shirt was the formidable Tongan, Fuifui Moimoi – a veteran of 10 seasons in the Australian Rugby League – who was typically aggressive both with the ball and in defence. (It struck me that Moimoi’s clear emergence as a local cult hero was not unlike that attained by the similarly-sized Ian Van Bellen in the latter stages of his career at the newly-formed Fulham club in the 1980s).
I talked to one or two of my neighbours. Of the two young men on my right, one was familiar with rugby union in Canada – a well-established sport in some areas of the country – and seemed to be accurately explaining the rules of rugby league to his friend. He remained nervous about the Wolfpack’s promotion prospects, quoting to me the narrow leads over Barrow and Whitehaven (2 and 4 points, respectively) in the league table. When I asked about the local media coverage, the second man acknowledged that rugby league was a “second tier” sport, but noted that soccer (through the Toronto FC) was succeeding in making its own inroads from a similarly low base. He made an interesting point about the need to keep the entry price at a competitive level, compared with soccer: the cost to me (as an adult with no discount for seniors) was $30 Canadian (about £20).
The middle-aged couple seated in front of me were attending for the first time with their young children. The father told me that his preferred sport was lacrosse and his awareness of the Wolfpack had been raised by press reports of some of the injuries that the players had sustained (which partly answered the question about the local media). He seemed to thoroughly enjoy his afternoon and, I’m sure, they will be repeat visitors.
If professional rugby league is to take root in Canada, Toronto seems to be the best place to start. It is a large, prosperous and cosmopolitan city with a liberal attitude to outside influences: we were informed on the city bus tour that one-half of its inhabitants were born outside Canada. The sport might also be able to take advantage of the growing concerns across North America – including amongst the parents of high school and college students – about the potential effects of head knocks incurred playing American Football on long-term health and wellbeing.
It is a summer sport, however, and the main challenge in raising general awareness of the local rugby league is undoubtedly the blanket media coverage given to baseball. The Toronto Blue Jays have regular season fixtures in Major League Baseball on 160 of the 183 days between 1st April and 30th September. That said, the local television station did report the Wolfpack’s win in a single by-line on the screen, whilst Monday’s Toronto Star gave all four of the weekend’s Super Eights results and an updated league table. It might be expected that the local media coverage will increase when there is a larger domestic presence within the Wolfpack ranks: the 25-man squad listed for the Newcastle game had 18 players from the British Isles, 3 from Australia or the PacificIslands and 4 from Canada or the USA.
The other major challenge will be on the playing field, of course. If and when the Wolfpack are promoted, they will incur much tougher challenges than those posed this season by the Gloucestershire All Golds and Hemel Hempstead Stags and, indeed, Newcastle Thunder. Next season’s opponents should include the skilled (and grizzled) campaigners of Featherstone and Halifax and Batley. All being well, this enhanced competition – and the higher standard of rugby league on offer – will lead to the further progress of the Toronto Wolfpack club.
More immediately, I noted from the match programme (price $2 Canadian) that the Toronto Wolfpack have three home fixtures remaining in this year’s Super Eights. Two of these are against Barrow and Whitehaven.