The Toronto Wolfpack have marketed themselves as "the first transatlantic professional sports team" and for a rugby league team to achieve that distinction is worthy of note from the wider world of sport. There has been talk over recent years of a UK based NFL team following on from the success of games played in London but Toronto has beaten them to it. Rugby league does what rugby league is good at, being innovative but, rugby league being rugby league, it is unlikely to be an easy ride.
Let us consider the negatives of Toronto. The sport has continually struggled with the balance between forward thinking and tradition. Toronto does not have a century old tradition of rugby league and to simply create a team in an area with limited infrastructure creates a challenge and there will be those within the sport that resent time, effort and money being spent on a new club at the expense of more traditional ones. It should also be acknowledged that we have been here before. Paris, Wales, Gateshead and London have all seen rugby league teams and, if we wish to be brutal, all failed to differing degrees. Catalan has been more of a success due to the traditions in the area that the club is based. One of the underlying causes of the sport's struggles has been financial. Extremely rich financial backers are a rarity in the sport and, again being brutal, many clubs simply do not put enough bums on seats on a regular basis to support the number of clubs in existence. Toronto also has numerous sports played within its borders which could make it hard for rugby league to get a foothold.
More positively, here is the proverbial breath of fresh air. A new club from a new country flying the flag for the sport. The man behind the club comes across very well in the media and seems genuinely enthusiastic about what they can achieve. In one interview he pointed to the potential for Toronto as a city to attract larger crowds and financial backing than much smaller UK towns that have been the bedrock of rugby league since its inception. The coaching and player base thus far looks strong and development of Canadian players will be needed to support this going forward.
I am of the belief that Toronto can succeed but it will need support on the way. The governing body of the sport needs to embrace the concept, as do the traditional clubs if they are serious about wanting the sport to expand its horizons. I am also of the belief that other "international" clubs are needed to go alongside Toronto to prevent it becoming an outpost in isolation. In addition to Catalan, Toulouse and two Welsh sides are the only ones that exist out of England. Down under, only the New Zealand Warriors exist away from Australia's Eastern seaboard within the NRL.
The balance between progress and tradition is one the sport struggles with. In a previous blog, I suggested that splitting traditional English rugby league into Western and Eastern divisions using a model similar to that used in Gaelic football may have been a way of protecting tradition. Whisper it very quietly but rugby league might want to look at what rugby union has achieved with the Super rugby concept. This tournament was born out of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa but now incorporates Argentina and Japan. An International rugby league conference running alongside Superleague and the NRL has the potential to create a third league of similar standing which avoids the inevitable thrashings that are handed out when new clubs play the old. Toronto versus New York as a nice ring to it, as does Catalan versus Barcelona, Auckland versus Wellington and Port Moseby versus Apia. A more expansive World Club Challenge could then be resurrected. Having two teams in smaller geographical areas can create the concept of a "derby" as well as reducing travel costs.
One suspects there will be many who think I live in cloud cuckoo land for suggesting this. The lack of money in the sport and the sparsity of investors may make this notion of international club rugby league little short of a piped dream. The spectre of the once popular World League of American Football is noted as a reminder that the concept is not an easy one. The performance of Italian club teams in rugby union's Pro 12 when up against the teams from the home nations highlight the difficulties when clubs from new areas are simply lumped in with traditional ones.
Having an international club competition would be expensive but with careful geographical and travel management success is not entirely inconceivable. The international club competition would not impact greatly on those who wish to protect the traditional clubs. A British Rugby League, an Australian Rugby League and an International Rugby League could exist in harmony and create a way forward for the sport on the international stage.
I wish Toronto Wolfpack well. One hopes that they are successful in establishing themselves within the sport and are a catalyst for others to do the same. They will need support and patience. One hopes they will be given both. Is International club Rugby League a way forward? What do you think?