August 8, 2018

The Toronto Wolfpack: The most unusual team in Toronto pro sports

The more that people learn about the Toronto Wolfpack, the more surprised they are.  And once people have attended a game, they come back.

The team is only two years old, but this season they have played against opposition whose foundation pre-dates Canada’s Confederation.  What might be even more startling is that the teams they play are all based in the United Kingdom or France.  So half of the Wolfpack’s games are played in Toronto, at Lamport Stadium on King Street West, and the other half are played in Europe.  Players mainly come from England and Australia, but you’ll find those from France, Italy, New Zealand, Pacific island nations, and even some North Americans.  The Wolfpack are carrying a young Canadian, Quinn Ngawati, a giant at 19 and still growing.

The sport they play is one that people THINK they know when they hear it, until they see it played and realize it’s not what they thought at all.

This is rugby league.  Despite having the word ‘rugby’ in the title, this is not the version familiar to most Canadians (rugby union).  While having a common beginning, the two ‘codes’ (versions) separated acrimoniously in 1895, and have evolved into distinct sports, with more differences between the two than the CFL and NFL.

A rugby league team has 13 men on the field, fewer than union.  Once a player is tackled, the defensive line has to quickly retreat 10 metres before the tackled player gets up and puts the ball in play again.  An attacking team can be tackled six times before they have to turn the ball over.  If they managed to touch the ball down on the ground in the ‘in-goal area’, which is known as a ‘try’ (score a touchdown, literally, in what Canadians would call the end zone) they get four points.  A conversion gives the team an extra two.  So that’s where the very simple and memorable phrase comes in that helps explain the sport to newcomers:

A team gets six tackles to score six points.‍

Much like in football, the ball is kicked away on the last possession before turning it over.  But here’s where there’s an exciting difference:  The kicking team can, and often does, recover the ball to score a try.  The kick could be hoisted high so that an attacker can get under it before a defender does, or it could be chipped low and chased.  If the ball is on the ground in the in-goal area, all an attacker has to do is just put their hand on it (downward pressure, according to the rulebook) and that’s four points.

The sport introduced a number of innovations over time to make it fast and keep play moving.  It’s not recommended that you look away, because you’ll miss something.

After the game is where the Toronto Wolfpack experience sets itself apart, yet again, from every other pro sport in the area.  Many fans will go down to the edge of the stands, and the players of BOTH teams will walk around to shake hands, take photos, sign autographs, and generally just accept the well-wishes of an appreciative Toronto crowd.

But things aren’t over yet.  The Beer Garden on the north side of the stadium, which has a selection of craft brewers, cider, and mixed drink vendors, stays open for several hours after the game is over.  A DJ plays, and fans of both teams mingle and socialize, to be joined by many players and team staff after they’ve had a chance to shower and change.  The guy behind you in the line for a beer might just have finished getting the living daylights knocked out of him in the game.  I think he deserves that beer.

In 2017, Toronto entered the RFL (Rugby Football League) at the lowest tier, winning the title and getting promoted to the middle tier, known as “The Championship”, for 2018.  By finishing the regular season on top in the standings, the Wolfpack have earned the right to play for a spot in the top tier, the Super League.

The best four teams in the Championship and the lowest four teams in the Super League play seven games to determine who gets to go up to the top tier, in a process called ‘The Qualifiers’.  The highest three teams at the end are placed in the Super League, and the teams finishing fourth and fifth play each other in a winner-takes-all final match to determine the last team to go to the top.  It’s called the Million Pound Game, and it’s heartless, cruel, and utterly compelling to watch.

Toronto opens their playoff schedule on the road in Halifax, England, on August 12th, then return to Lamport to host Hull Kingston Rovers on Saturday, August 18th, with kick-off at 2:30 pm.  The remaining five games are:London Broncos @ Toronto, Saturday, September 1st, 12:30 pm KOToronto @ Salford Red Devils, Saturday, September 8thToulouse (France) @ Toronto, Saturday, September 15th, 12:30 pm KOWidnes Vikings @ Toronto, Saturday, September 22nd, 12:30 pm KOToronto @ Leeds Rhinos, Friday, September 28th.

The final difference to mention here that matters to Canadians is affordability.  In the East stand, it’s $25 for adults, $18.75 for ages 16-21, and $12.50 for those under 16 or over 65.  Slightly more expensive is the West stand, at $30 for adults, $22.50 for ages 16-21, and $15 for those under 16 or over 65.  As an added bonus, for the September 1st game, all adult tickets include two free children’s tickets, making it even more accessible on Labour Day weekend.

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