It’s not a stretch to say Toronto were looking like one of the great success stories of modern rugby league. They were a superb team befitting of Super League and had drawing power both in the sense of crowds and star players. But all of their good work went up in smoke last season leaving us all wondering what next for the club.
Toronto joined the British Rugby League system in 2017 after three years of discussion. It was the RFL’s decision to allow them into League 1 a competition they stormed through to gain promotion to the Championship leaving them just one division away from Super League.
They dominated the Championship upon arrival. They looked Super League bound as they battled it through the Middle 8 system even beating 8-time Super League Champions Leeds to ensure home advantage in the Million Pound Game against London. A shock win for the Broncos denied them but 12 months later Toronto corrected that wrong and secured promotion with victory over Featherstone.
With them making the leap to Super League there was a realistic chance to spread the game in America. Toronto’s approach was a huge part of that gaining good crowds and putting on a show not just with exciting and successful rugby but turning the pre-match into a carnival. The experiment was working and had led to the creation of Ottawa Aces who have been looking to join League 1 since 2020. Even a New York team was created and was promised a place in the lower leagues in the next few years.
Yes, Toronto’s start to life in Super League wasn’t the greatest not gaining a win and losing their final match in the competition 66-12 at Headingley. However, a Challenge Cup victory against Huddersfield left them on the right track in terms of results. But then the pandemic hit and Toronto were the worst affected.
Financial issues led to players and staff not being paid with many stars – such as the high-profile Sonny Bill Williams – fleeing to the NRL. The club would not take part in Super League’s return after lockdown and their place beyond 2020 was in jeopardy.
Business man Carlo LiViolsi was set to take over but the other Super League clubs rejected the takeover and Toronto were replaced in Super League XXVI by Leigh Centurions.
But what next?
The failure of Toronto certainly cast doubts over the future of Ottawa Aces and New York especially with the virus not going away. Many people thought Toronto and co were the next step forward for a game still struggling to go beyond the M62 corridor. With the Wolfpack finally Super League would offer the international acclaim it promised back in 1996.
Instead, only one club in this year’s Super League exists firmly outside the Pennines. Many people believe Super League made a mistake rejecting Toronto and saw it as a step backwards rather than a step forwards. They also feared that the NRL may capitalise and take control of the American market and allow teams like Toronto and New York to make their way in the Australian league rather than the Super League.
The future of Super League is up in the air as well with the NRL considering a bid for control over it. This would no doubt be admitting defeat to our Australian cousins and the failure of Toronto makes that possibility even more concrete.
In truth more should’ve been done to aid this expansion project. Toronto had star players and Super League’s most successful coach at the helm. The on-field promise was there. And we’re led to believe the takeover might have worked so it was a risk worth taking surely.
From here perhaps Toronto should be allowed to return to British Rugby League. Whether that’s back in the Championship or even in League 1 it’s vital for the expansion of rugby league and the success of Super League that Toronto and their sister clubs remain an asset. They should perhaps be given leeway to find a new and trustworthy owner who can continue Toronto’s on-field success whilst maintaining their well-being off the field as well.
Just as we saw Super League ‘restart’ after lockdown, perhaps Toronto should be given a ‘restart’ themselves. Now people will say it’s unfair to give a club this level of leeway but the future of the sport could depend on it. We’ve seen care and attention given to struggling historic clubs now we need to give care to a new club who offers us a future.
But does this mean turning on the past? Should clubs like Bradford and Widnes be more protected and offered routes back to the top instead of Toronto who appeared to be a liability at the end? Should Toronto be simply allowed to die? I’m not sure but even if you’ve forgotten about Toronto in recent weeks what happens next with them could decide where Super League and rugby league heads next.