It's a hot, dry September afternoon in Liberty Village, a neighbourhood in south-west Toronto, and a dozen or so men form a circle on a playing field. They are all, without exception, large. Some look like athletes, with pronounced pecs and bandy legs, while others are just big blokes in shorts, the kind of looming, slightly doughy units you bounce off in five-a-side football. They're drenched in sweat and every one has that helpless, glassy-eyed expression you only see in people very near exhaustion. They are all audibly North American but are being ordered about by gruff, flat-vowelled coaches who sound like they could be from any number of places along the M62 corridor: Bradford; Halifax; Leigh. These coaches make the men perform a fitness drill known as "scrolling", a horrible process involving sprinting on the spot then dropping to the floor and getting back up, dropping and getting back up, dropping and getting back up. When you're big and already knackered, this is very hard. Some cannot cope. A man with dreadlocks falls on one knee, spent. Others do their best to gee-up the group, panting encouragements while the coaches watch in silence. "Why you here?" bellows one man desperately, as he drops to the floor then drags himself up again. "Why you here, fellas?"
It's a good question. Why are they here? In one sense, the answer is straightforward. These men — former college football linebackers, amateur rugby union enthusiasts, miscellaneous sporty types with a pair of boots and a free Saturday afternoon — have all responded to an ad announcing open tryouts for a new professional rugby league team, the Toronto Wolfpack. The more romantic answer, however, is they want to make history. The Wolfpack are based in Toronto, where they play their home games, but compete in a British league against British teams. It was conceived to be — and is in fact — the world's first transatlantic professional sports franchise.
While "transatlantic professional sports franchise" might sound glamorous, the Wolfpack are spending their inaugural season competing not in the Super League — British rugby league's top flight, home to blue-chip sides like Leeds Rhinos, Warrington Wolves and St Helens — but down in the third tier of our domestic competition, the Kingstone Press League One. Their opponents include York City Knights, Hemel Stags and South Wales Ironmen: barely semi-pro outfits with home crowds in the low hundreds, where the cheerleaders are primary school kids high on Haribo and the clubhouse bar is staffed by people directly related to the players. It's not the Dallas Cowboys coming to Wembley.
The second thing to understand is that in Canada rugby league is almost unknown. The Canadian Rugby League Federation, which oversaw the country's amateur game and national side, folded in 2000. Nobody really seemed to notice. Ice hockey? Lacrosse? Baseball? Rugby union? Football? Curling? Canadians play these sports and loads more. Canada even has a competitive, trans-national Quidditch championship. But there is no equivalent for rugby league. Part of the reason the Wolfpack now have to schlep to places like Whitehaven and Workington is that they are some of the nearest clubs able to give them a proper game. And they're in Cumbria.
If you're feeling generous, you might say a professional rugby league team, spun from thin air, based in a sport-saturated country which doesn't care about rugby league, which will play in a scrappy competition over 3,500 miles and five time zones away, is a very ambitious proposition. If you're not, it just sounds like a really terrible idea. And if your initial reaction is the latter, then you are not alone.
"When I read about it in the papers, I immediately thought 'That's a stupid idea, that will never work,'" says Bob Beswick, the former Wigan Warriors, Widnes Vikings and Leigh Centurions hooker. Rhys Jacks was playing at scrum-half for Sheffield Eagles when he heard. "I thought there was no way that could happen," he says, shaking his head. "No way." Brian Noble, who managed the Bradford Bulls to three Super League titles and coached Wigan Warriors and Great Britain, remembers a friend tipping him off about the proposed Toronto franchise. "I didn't know if he was being serious," he says. "I wasn't sure if it was a wind-up." And yet, within a few months, all these men agreed to join the Wolfpack, with Beswick and Jacks signing playing contracts and Noble appointed as the club's director of rugby.
The man who persuaded them — without whom the Wolfpack would not exist — is its CEO Eric Perez, a fortysomething former advertising executive from Toronto. He's stout, with a shaven head and stubble, and likes to wear horn-rimmed glasses, baseball caps and Black Sabbath T-shirts. His dog is called Bowie. He looks like he should be a start-up CEO, or an angel investor, or a pop manager. But no. He runs a rugby league club, an ambition he fostered for years. "I had a plan. Nobody understood what I was doing," he says. "Nobody believed it could happen. But I was determined, almost relentlessly, to make it happen. Somehow I did."
How did one slightly nerdy Canadian develop an all-consuming obsession with a sport that barely existed in his home country? It was, he says, a simple twist of fate. In the early 2000s, his girlfriend lived in Gibraltar so he went to stay with her. "Everyone in Gibraltar had illegal Sky Boxes," he says. One day, he flicked on the TV and there was a rugby game on. Only, not like the rugby he had grown up playing in Canada. "I remember thinking, what is this? The pace of it. The speed. The lack of dead ball situations. The game, it just goes and goes. I was just blown away by it. It was Leeds [Rhinos] against Bradford [Bulls] and there was a big brawl, which never hurts," he says, grinning. "We like a nice brawl."
At the final whistle, he switched off the TV feeling stunned. Why had nobody ever told him about this incredible game? He began to do some research and discovered Canada was "probably the most significant Commonwealth realm that didn't play rugby league". He dug into the history and found out about the bitter schism with rugby union, professionalism versus amateurism, working class versus public school, north versus south, decades and decades of historical enmity and antagonism between the two codes and the confinement of the league to its Yorkshire and Lancashire heartlands. If you're British and follow either form of rugby — but particularly rugby league — this history weighs heavy. But Perez is not British. And it all just left him scratching his head. "When I researched the whole socio-economic dynamic and the class divide from the turn of the last century in England, I just thought… we don't care about any of that. Most people that come to Canada come to get away from those kinds of things."
Over the intervening years, Perez led what was at times a one-man crusade to make Canada care about this game. "It's the most Canadian sport that never was," he says. "Because our mentality is hard working and never-say-die. We like to get stuck in but we also like to have skill in everything we do, which is exactly what rugby league is about. It's like old-time hockey. It's raw. It's grassroots. It's real and played by guys you can relate to."
In 2010, he founded Canada Rugby League to replace the Canadian Rugby League Federation. He re-established the Canadian national team and arranged fixtures against the USA. If you're going to have a national team, you're going to need players. And if you want players, you're going to need teams for them to play for. So Perez, ploughing every dollar of his own into the project, set about creating a handful of amateur rugby league clubs in the Ontario region, making what connections he could and calling in favours. Perez contacted the CEO of Leigh Centurions: "And he said, 'Hey, if you can come and pick them up, we have a full set of old kit you can have.'" Ta-da! Say hello to the Toronto Centurions. Likewise, Saint Helens told him that, sure, he could have their old tops, which is how the Toronto City Saints came into being. Same deal with the Salford Red Devils and the York Region Reds. It wasn't quite Super League — it wasn't even Kingstone Press League One — but it was something.
Slowly, players came. And so, in dribs and drabs, did fans. Perez marketed rugby league as gritty, underground and actually kind of cool. Within a few years, the national side was attracting crowds of 7,000 or so at Toronto's Lamport Stadium, a compact venue near the shore of Lake Ontario. By force of Perez's will alone — plus some second-hand jerseys — people were now playing and watching rugby league in Canada. But Perez wanted something more — a Canadian club, supported by thousands of fans, that would one day play in the Super League. In fact, deep down, he wanted something even bigger than that. He wanted the whole of North America to feel the same way about rugby league as he did.
On YouTube you can find a 1969 TV programme called The Game that Got Away. It's about rugby league, narrated by a well-spoken BBC type and presented as a kind of sociological survey meets sports documentary. And even though it's almost half a century old, it's as good a place as any to start when trying to understand the psyche of the sport (which is in itself probably telling). What the film does, tenderly and with some humour, is provide a portrait of a game marked by intense pride but also by paranoia and pessimism. It is, we learn, a sport hemmed in geographically and denigrated for the sin of poaching amateur rugby union players; a sport whose supporters refer to it as "the greatest game", but who maintain it has never been treated with the respect it deserves. In 1969, we are told, the combined match-day crowds at all top level rugby league clubs would fit into Old Trafford.
Today, not a lot has really changed. Super League attendances last season were down, with an average gate of 8,810. "You used to be able to shout down a pit in Featherstone and 27 rugby league players would come up," says Brian Noble. Now the player pool is diminishing, and top talent runs the risk of being cherry-picked either by the National Rugby League in Australia or, even more gallingly, by rugby union. "We still have people in the game who are on 15 grand a year for playing in the first team," says Noble. "Given what they put their bodies through and the entertainment they provide, it's bonkers." The constant anxiety is that as fans die or drift away, UK rugby league will spin in ever-decreasing circles until it one day finds itself a genuine minority sport. A cultural relic. A curiosity.
The central problem for rugby league in Britain is it has never been able to expand seriously. Of the 10 largest UK cities, only Leeds claims a top-flight team. None of this is news to Noble. "You go south of Nottingham and you won't see any rugby league. South of Sheffield even. You won't see rugby league in the schools. It has never managed to break out of its northern corridor in the UK. We need a new market," he says. "We need more players."
The plan is that the Wolfpack, based in a city of just under three million people ("10m within an hour's travel," says Perez, more than once), will provide British rugby league with both. And money. Potentially, very serious money. If the team can get into Super League then Super League can get into North America. The broadcasting rights would be extremely lucrative ("pretty much double what they are now", Noble believes) and this cash would then flow into the coffers of every Super League club.
But first, the Wolfpack has to find fans. This is not a given. Clubs like Oxford RLFC, Hemel Stags, Coventry Bears, University of Gloucestershire All Golds, the South Wales Ironmen, the London Broncos all exist — some created with the financial backing of the Rugby Football League — but it's hard to shake the sense they're not much more than hopeful colonies, limping along, established by a squeezed motherland. Failed clubs haunt the sport's history like so many Roanokes: Paris Saint-Germain? Celtic Crusaders? Nottingham City? Gone. Grown over. Forgotten. And this isn't even a new thing. My great-grandfather was a miner who played rugby union for Wales. He was offered money to play league in London by a businessman who, during the mid-Thirties, attempted to establish two clubs in the capital: Acton and Willesden RLFC, and Streatham and Mitcham RLFC. Because playing rugby for money is better than playing rugby for free and working down a mine, my great-grandfather said "yes please". He played one season for each club before they both duly folded, and so ended up following the tried and true path North and signing for Leeds. He played for a decade, then settled and raised a family there. If the people of Acton, Willesden, Streatham and Mitcham had been more into rugby league then I, quite literally, would not be here now. Every cloud, I suppose.
In Keighley, however, the people are very much into rugby league. On a bright Sunday afternoon in late March, 1,200 come to Cougar Park (home of the Keighley Cougars) to watch their team play the Toronto Wolfpack. In the nine months since the open tryouts for the Wolfpack, a team has been assembled. In truth, the tryouts — also held in other US cities and even Kingston, Jamaica — were partly a publicity move. Perez developed an X-Factor-style reality show, Last Tackle, which followed the fortunes of hopefuls trying to win a contract with the club. There are currently two Canadians in the squad and an American. There's also a healthy smattering of former Super League talent plus, in pride of place, former New Zealand international and NRL veteran Fuifui Moimoi, a charismatic and elemental prop, even approaching 38.
This kind of recruitment policy takes money. The Wolfpack are backed by a consortium of 10 businessmen led by Perez. The club has pledged to cover opponents' travel and accommodation for the next few seasons. The clear intention is not to hang around in the third tier but to win the two promotions required to make the Super League. Not every rugby league fan is happy about this. As the game kicked off, a Keighley fan, pint in hand, directed abuse at the Wolfpack bench. He was relentless. "Need more money, Toronto?" he shouted when they misplaced a pass. He heckled players who came off during interchanges. "Come on! You must be able to do more than 20 minutes! You're a Super League player!" The way he sneered "Super League player" made it sound like the worst thing a man can be. After the Wolfpack scored a second try in an evenly matched first half, his mood darkened. "Absolute joke," he muttered. "They shouldn't even be here. Piss off back to Canada."
That fan seemed to be an exception. At half-time, I wandered the ground. It was only the Wolfpack's fourth competitive game but there were already two dozen people in Wolfpack replica kits. At this point, the Wolfpack were yet to play a home game — their fixtures are arranged in manageable blocks of away then home fixtures — but a nascent fan culture was emerging. When they scored that second try against Keighley, one middle-aged man on the far side of the stand let out a long wolf howl, "Awoooooooo!" before chuckling a little self-consciously. Another man had draped a Maple Leaf flag over the touchline railing. His name was Adam Perry and he was that rare thing, a London-born, London-based rugby league fan. He'd come up for this game and said the whole premise of the Wolfpack was so far-fetched he couldn't resist.
"It's just a bit absurd and that's partly what attracts me to them. It's one of the most audacious sporting projects there has ever been," he said brightly. "In London, the sport is dying. At London Broncos, we get 700 people a game. But the Wolfpack already have over 6,000 season ticket holders [at press time it is upwards of 7,000]. So which is the upcoming market and which isn't?"
A woman in a Wolfpack jersey walked past. "Excuse me," I said, "stupid question but, are you a Toronto Wolfpack fan?" Her name was Kerry-Anne Daniels and technically she is a Warrington Wolves fan but has family connections to Toronto so can't see a problem supporting both sides. "You're allowed a second team. We'd rather see the sport get a wider audience than die, so it's a positive for the game," she said. Speaking to rugby league fans or reading comments online, this attitude appears prevalent. Rooting for the Wolfpack is rooting for the greater good of the sport. "It's going to be fantastic for the game," added Daniels. "More money and fresh blood from North America and Canada."
That includes Ryan Burroughs, a versatile 25-year-old from Virginia who can play across the Wolfpack's back line. Burroughs had been a wide receiver for his high school football [gridiron] team and then, three years ago, after a stint in the army, a friend introduced him to rugby union. "I played it and loved it," he says. After the team he was playing for lost in the play-offs, he found himself at a loose end. "But my friend said, 'Don't worry, there's a better version of rugby they play in the summer called rugby league,' so I thought I may as well give it a shot." He turned out for the Northern Virginia Eagles ("and pretty much just started killing it in the USA league") which won him a place in the national team and a semi-pro contract in Australia. Signing for the Wolfpack in 2016, he became the club's first try-scorer during a third round Challenge Cup tie against Siddal ARLFC, an amateur side from Halifax. "That's special," he says. "Nobody can take that away from me."
During the first months of the season, prior to their first home game at the Lamport Stadium, Burroughs and the rest of the Wolfpack were based in Huddersfield. He had not been to England before and struggled to understand what his northern teammates were saying. "Oh man, the accents," he says. "It feels like every person has a different accent. Two of the boys on the team will say they're from the same place, but they sound totally different. You kind of pick it up. But once in a while somebody will say something and I'll be like… 'I have no idea what that means.'"
Over the summer the team are in Toronto for home fixtures, so the culture shock has no doubt been reversed. Bob Beswick, the Wolfpack hooker, describes what the transatlantic crisscrossing demanded of them: over to Canada for a week, back to Huddersfield for a week, over to Canada for three weeks, back to Huddersfield for two weeks, then to Canada for an even longer spell. "It's crazy and ridiculous what we're about to do," he says, laughing. "It shouldn't make any sense. But it's funny how quickly we've all just accepted it."
In fact, increasingly, the transatlantic nature of the club is viewed by other players as something of a draw. It helps that they've been steamrollering through the division — running Super League side Salford City Reds close in the cup, losing 29–22 — but there's also something aspirational about them. Even superficial things. The kit is cool. The branding is slick. There's craft beer on sale at the ground in Toronto and good-looking cheerleaders ("The She-Wolves", obviously). It feels like a North American sports team, basically. Which I suppose is the point.
"Everybody was scratching their heads in the early days," says Noble. "Recruitment wasn't easy, you were selling something completely new to kids who probably haven't been out of Dewsbury or Bradford or Leeds in their lives. Now, we have people knocking on the door, ringing us, wanting to join."
By 16 June, the Wolfpack are unbeaten in the league after 10 matches. Their first home game took place in May, on a cold, wet windy day, when 6,281 fans saw them beat amateur UK side Oxford 62–12. My great uncle — son of my rugby-playing great-grandfather — emigrated to Toronto from Leeds in the Sixties. I told him about the Wolfpack but his response was pessimistic. "Canadians already play lots of other sports," he said. He didn't hold out much hope for rugby league. Oh well, I thought, then a few days after the Oxford game, he sent me a Toronto Star newspaper clipping about the match. He said he was going to the next game. He sounded excited.
It's easy, when you've grown up with rugby league, to always assume the worst; to walk around under a cloud, to suck your teeth and grimace. Then you'll watch a game and it's the best thing you've ever seen and all you want to do is tell people. It's a schizophrenic cycle and it wears you down. But the Toronto Wolfpack might just break that loop.
"There is this self-loathing, self-deprecating attitude that seems to be prevalent in the north of England," says Perez. "So many of the world's great innovations have come from there, and people speak quite proudly of them. But at the basic level they will always second-guess themselves. Rugby league needs the Wolfpack and for reasons that are as much psychological as they are financial. I think people need to stand up and realise this is the greatest game of all. It is," he says solemnly, "the greatest sport ever."
He predicts there will be a Montreal team playing in the UK "within a couple of years". Then maybe a franchise in Boston? How about Dublin? He isn't just spitballing. "If I say it's going to happen, then I promise with all my determination that it will happen."
It sounds good, it sounds amazing, but that's for the future. Back in Keighley, the Wolfpack had sealed their win, cutting loose in the second half beating the Cougars 48–21. From the main stand, I could see the sun starting to set on the Yorkshire moors. As the players left the pitch, a noise bounced round the ground. Here and there were men, women and children, heads tilted back and eyes shut tight. "Awoooooooo!" they cried. "Awoooooooo! Awoooooooo! Awoooooooo!"