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Following the Wolfpack

August 31, 2018

There’s no better way for a little old lady to spend a Saturday afternoon than watching young men run around in short shorts.

If you haven’t experienced Rugby League, take yourself down to  Allan Lamport Stadium to catch a Toronto Wolfpack game – soon.

It’s fast-paced, bone-jarring and immensely good fun.

I was surprised when the Wolfpack arrived in Toronto. While Rugby League is firmly established in the UK, particularly in the north, Toronto is the only North American team.

In the UK, there are two distinct forms of rugby. Rugby Union, where 15 players are on the pitch at any time and Rugby League with 13 players.

More than other sport, though, it’s class that defines the two kinds of rugby. Rugby League is very much a working class sport. 

Rugby Union is played at universities and supported by the professional class. Well-to-do players have no need to be paid to play.

Rugby League is a professional game played predominantly in the north of England. Historically, they were working lads who needed an income to put food on the table. There was once a snobbism between the two games: Union fans frowned on a paid professional rugby league

What propelled me to Lamport Stadium was a Wolfpack game against Hull Kingston Rovers. My parents were both from Hull, a gritty port city in the east coast of Yorkshire. We proudly followed Rugby League. (Full disclosure, though, we supported the other Hull team, Hull FC, and not Hull KR. The whirring I heard throughout the game was my late father spinning in his grave.)

It’s a take-no-prisoners game, where players wearing very little protective gear take each other on with bone-crunching tackles. North American footballers swaddle themselves in massive amounts of gladiatorial armour. Not these guys.

While the game appears similar to North American football, in fact the game is more readily comparable to hockey, with  its speed and sheer physicality. Wolfpack owners took a risk investing in a transatlantic version of  rugby league two years ago. I suspect they recognized Canadians like their sports with a side order of red meat.

Just as the hockey player’s toothless smile is a badge of honour, so broken noses and assorted facial scars are viewed with pride as war wounds by rugby players.

The Wolfpack lost to Hull KR, but it was fierce and close – 28-22.

In 2018 the Wolfpack competed in the Betfred Championship for the first time. Having finished top of the league during the regular season, they’re two games into a post-season campaign for a place in Super League. The post-season, or “Super 8s The Qualifiers,” consists of the top four teams of the Betfred Championship and the bottom four teams of the Super League breaking off at the end of the regular season to compete in a mini league of their own. Teams play each other once in a round-robin format, with the top three teams securing a place in the Super League for next season and the bottom three teams a place in the Championship. The fourth and fifth placed teams then compete in a one-off, play-off game dubbed the “Million Pound Game”, with the winner going to the Super League and the loser to the Championship. The Wolfpack currently sit third in the standings with five postseason games still to play.

The Wolfpack is proving to be a big T.O. tourist attraction. One Hull visitor told me that as many as 400 KR supporters came over for the game. All of which makes it easier for Canadian fans to learn the game. In the UK, northerners are known for their openness and their blunt talk. They’re proud of their game and happy to explain it. If you’re unfamiliar with the game, ask a visiting Brit. Chances are, they’ll be happy to explain the intricacies. 

So for those of you who enjoy an afternoon watching large, muscled, sweaty men in very small shorts – and be honest, who doesn’t? – Wolfpack games are just the ticket.

They stay true to their working class roots. At the end of the game, players do a victory lap to thank the fans for showing up. They’ve been known to show up in the beer tent afterwards.

They play the London Broncos September 1.  Tickets are reasonably priced, it’s easily accessible and immense fun. And they’re Toronto’s most winning team right now. Let’s cheer them on. See you in the Den.

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