For a journey and a goal that was season long, it took just 9 minutes of magic from Blake Wallace to give all Toronto Wolfpack players and fans the opportunity to breathe a sigh of relief and enjoy their promotion to the Championship League. The 26-2 victory over 2nd place Barrow Raiders was the final obstacle as they are now crowned Champions of Kingstone Press League One. The jump in Tier will no doubt bring stiffer competition and tougher challenges next year but there is plenty of time to discuss that later. For now let’s enjoy this moment because it’s not too often a team from Toronto can celebrate any Championship victory and for a sport to have found a new place to grow.
There have been (and still are) some detractors of this North American team. Mostly bitter UK fans who believe expansion to Toronto was a mistake. You have to understand though that these few people do not represent the majority. They are just disgruntled people who would also be upset at Toronto if they were given straight entrance to the Super League. They cry about the Wolfpack not being able to bring away fans (gate revenues) to their team; or how Toronto fans shouldn’t be cheering or be proud because the Wolfpack hardly have any Canadians playing and they complain that the promotion is tainted because it was “bought” with higher skilled players.
Maybe these “rugby league” fans should invest some time in learning the facts. They need to see how little the sport has grown in the past 20 years and that this type of change is needed for Rugby League to survive and grow. So let’s quickly dismiss their false accusations and then move on with a more positive approach. To begin, most of the teams (6/8) had their best attendance when Toronto visited. Secondly, we are in the 21st century where playing for club and playing for country are two completely different things, get over it. Finally, the Wolfpack put out the best possible team that they can every week just like every other team does. They have played within the same rules as everyone else. If their team had the same sponsorship funds as the Wolfpack, tell me they wouldn’t get the best players they could too? Regardless of all that, this championship, this trophy and more importantly, this promotion was not given to the Wolfpack (as an automatic berth in the Super League would have been) it WAS earned by starting at the bottom and working their way up. That is worthy enough of a celebration regardless if the victories came easy enough through the beginning of the season.
The Super 8s themselves however, have not been easy for the Wolfpack. Every team raised their game to a higher level including York City Knights as the only team to defeat them. This past Saturday’s game certainly wasn’t easy either. If anyone was expecting the same lopsided score as last time they played Barrow, they were sorely mistaken. It was a back and forth effort and it took some fancy footwork from Craig Hall and QLT to give the Wolfpack an 8-0 lead heading into halftime. After the Raiders got on the board to make it 8-2 the atmosphere was even more nerve wracking; that is until Wallace went to work by scoring two tries and assisting on another in that aforementioned magical 9 minutes. With a 26-2 lead and only 15 minutes remaining, the result was no longer in doubt, so the champagne corks got ready as this party was about to pop.
Before we get to the festivities though, a special thank you must go out to the visiting Barrow Raiders. They couldn’t have been happy being the only team to have to travel to Toronto twice this year with some of the personal expenses and sacrifices that come with it. It must also have been exceptionally hard to remain on the field as another team celebrates a championship. Rugby players may not get as much respect as they deserve on this side of the Atlantic, but when the rest of the continent recognizes how special they are off the field (even more than they are on) that will change. Tip of the cap to these gentlemen who did not only persevere through the trophy presentation but to also stick around afterwards at the beer tent area to shake hands, take selfies with Toronto fans and hopefully, take in the moment themselves.
The players weren’t the only ones celebrating. It must have been a proud day for the organization after all their behind the scenes work not to mention those founders that sparked and grew the original idea of the Wolfpack. Forget about them winning a championship, they grew the sport of Rugby League in the cement filled, frozen lands of Toronto where they fought to survive amongst other weeds such as the Toronto Blue Jays, Toronto Argonauts and Toronto FC. As an example, on a beautiful afternoon where the Blue Jays started their game at 4:07pm and TFC started theirs at 5pm, the Wolfpack started their game at 4:30pm and yet, they still managed to get a record attendance of 7,972. How?
Easy. As CEO Eric Perez said from the first game on Canadian soil, “The Toronto Wolfpack are the people’s team.” If you need proof of that, just look at the photos of their celebration as not only players were allowed to share that on-field jubilation of winning a championship, but staff members were on the field, the Shewovles and Little Shewolves were on the field; sponsors and even season long fans such as the Wolfpack Pack were asked to share in the festivities. Don’t worry if you couldn’t make it on the field, because the Wolfpack then came to you. Coaches Paul Rowley and Simon Finnegan brought the trophy to another fan group the Wolves in the North East Stand where they were allowed to raise the cup in celebration as well.
At the end of the day it doesn’t bother me that some people still think, regardless of their reasons, that this promotion is nothing to celebrate. This victory was indeed important because it solidified two very important ideals. The first is that this sport is made up of the most humble, fan-friendly athletes the world has ever seen as witnessed by any post game celebration at the Den. The second is that this sport is a viable entity in North America and that could be the start of rugby league growing worldwide.
Photos by Chris Papaioannou
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