Toronto and Williams arrive in RFL on a mission to stay the distance

The Guardian-11 months before

Paris Saint-Germain came and went, Oxford were here today, gone tomorrow. There have been countless others. Toronto were, it was suggested, likely to be the same, which will make the events of Sunday afternoon at Headingley all the more remarkable, when the Wolfpack make their Super League debut three years after playing their first game.

Super League Tr...e to their word Toronto have scaled the leagues and made it to the big time. And just as they predicted, they have done so while making a fair bit of noise. Still, there are plenty who remain to be convinced about the long-term validity of a team crossing the Atlantic on a regular basis to play games of rugby league.

“Are people afraid? I don’t know if they are. I think they’re more curious as to whether we’re going to stick around,” says the Toronto chairman, Bob Hunter. Funded by the Australian multi-millionaire mining magnate David Argyle, the Wolfpack have spent big to get to this point, including the record-breaking deal to sign the former All Black Sonny Bill Williams.

the record-breaking deal to sign the former All Black Sonny Bill Williams Williams already looks a shrewd investment, irrespective of the huge sums involved. He was hired to promote the game in Canada; not only has he done that, he has drawn more eyes and ears to rugby league in this country as he prepares for his own debut in the competition against Castleford. That’s right, Toronto versus Castleford: what other sport could throw up such an outlandish fixture?

“I understand the responsibility is to use my profile to do whatever I can to grow the game,” Williams says. “This is such a blessed opportunity, being able to experience this unique club and project. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and never played in Canada: how cool is it that me and my family get to experience that?”

It all sounds good so far: and for the most part, it is. But there are warnings from within. One of Toronto’s promises on entering the RFL was they would be entirely self‑funded, with no help from the Super League pot. This year they have sacrificed more than £1m to stick to their promise. “We need that equal distribution,” say Hunter, who arrived at the club last year.

“David has invested millions of dollars and will do that for a while – but I don’t know how long ‘a while’ is. I come from a professional sport background and I’ve never seen a model like this. Long-term, it just isn’t right. We need to be investing in the game in Canada and giving something back, so we need that distribution.”

Toronto’s first home game will not be until April because of the harsh winter in Canada. When they do get there, they will be attracting more fans than most Super League clubs. “We’ll sell out every game,” Hunter says of the 10,000-capacity Lamport Stadium. “We’ll push over that number with the beer gardens we use. That’s good for us and great for the city and the sport.”

The Wolfpack’s first season in Super League is likely to be tough. With a squad of 23 – and a request for dispensation to sign more players rejected last week – they could struggle.

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