“That’s… that’s just rugby league.”
Liam Kay, the Toronto Wolfpack winger responded matter-of-factly when asked why he didn’t go get his ankle checked right after the game. As if limping with the aid of crutches around Lamport stadium to shake hands, sign autographs and take selfies with the fans was as commonplace as afternoon tea in Britain or a Wolfpack victory, which they did again, now 9-0, beating the visiting Coventry Bears 54-12. Actually, for Kay and almost all other rugby league players, it really is just part of the their DNA. It is this kind of attitude that has quickly endeared fans to Kay and the sport of rugby league.
“I’ll always go out and thank the fans because they come out to basically watch us,” Kay explained in the post game press conference, “so the least that me and all the boys can do, despite the injuries, is go around and thank all of them.”
And thank them he did. Slowly of course, as it is difficult to sign autographs when both hands are on crutches. Everyone waited for him. Fans wanting a memory, stood by harmoniously and waited. His teammates who were already in the locker room wanting to sing their customary victory song, waited. Media, sitting in the press room with deadlines to beat, waited. No one minded. No one. As impatient as North Americans tend to be, we are finally beginning to fully grasp the concept of what “that’s just rugby league” really means. More than a business or a sport, it is about the people and the community and anyone that gets into rugby league whether as a player, groundskeeper, official or a fan, quickly becomes family.
“Guys, Rugby League is the people’s sport. The Toronto Wolfpack are the people’s team, that’s the bottom line,” CEO Eric Perez said . “We’re not better than the people, we don’t act like we’re better.”
If you are a critic or a skeptic, it is easy to believe that this is all self-serving dribble. That these players “have” to behave this way so that this new team and this new sport can succeed in Toronto. If that was truly the case, then please explain the actions of their opponents.
The Coventry Bears could have easily walked off the field after the loss, but instead they also took a trip around the stadium to thank the fans… the opposing fans. That’s right, they didn’t just go to their own supporters, they walked the entire stadium and thanked all of the fans and in turn, the Wolfpack fans thanked them back. Why? Because again, that’s just rugby league.
Think about it, the Coventry Bears came in with a record of 1-7 and everyone, I mean everyone believed that not only would they lose, but that it would be a massacre. After all, the Wolfpack beat the second best team in the league, 70-2 just two weeks prior. The Bears gritty on field performance earned them much respect as it had more to do with their attitude in how they conducted themselves, than with their skill level.
They knew it was going to be difficult to play after flying across the Atlantic; they knew it would be difficult to play against a much more experienced team. They could have just whined, and complained the entire time and mailed in their performance. But again, this is rugby league. So they took on the attitude of their owner, Alan Robinson. He has been very positive throughout the trip, making sure the players enjoyed themselves when they could (they took in a Blue Jays game), making sure they thanked their own fans who flew to Toronto to support them (they had a dinner with them) but also making sure they were ready to compete at the highest level they could. Which they did as Coventry kept the game close until just before halftime when Toronto scored 3 late tries that broke the game open.
“It’s nice to be nice, but it’s what rugby is about,” Robinson said during an interview at their York University residence, “On the field it is bish, bash, bosh; off the field everyone shakes each other’s hand and has a pint.”
With the team taking on that kind of attitude, it is no wonder that when that final whistle blew they walked with their heads held high, earning the respect of their peers and the Toronto fans. So despite their being a few skirmishes during the game with some pushing and shoving and a few expletives; you found both teams, and fans and even the officials all mingling together after the game having a pint. Why? Let’s all say it together now… that’s just rugby league.
The Wolfpack’s next game is June 10th and it will be interesting to see what lineup coach Paul Rowley will use, or more appropriately, is able to use. There are a number of players already off the roster due to injury, and now we don’t yet know the full extent of Kay’s. It put a bit of a damper on the day as although he wasn’t able to finish the game (with what we hope is only a rolled ankle) Kay won Man of the Match for the three tries he scored. He wasn’t the only one that left the game early though as Adam Sidlow may have injured his leg and Blake Wallace didn’t even suit up as his foot was in a soft boot cast from an injury that occurred during practice.
This might be an opportunity for some other players to get a chance to play as Tom Dempsey (Australian born, but plays for Canada) and American Joe Eichner had their debut. Eichner’s story is quite enjoyable as his spot on the team was won through an 18 player reality contest that will soon be aired by Last Tackle Tv. Eichner who was fairly new to the sport, is still learning many of the nuances and everyone on the team is pitching in to help.
The team will be back home in Toronto for their game on June 24th.
Further media available here.
By Dario Passarelli / @PapaDart
Photos by Chris Papaioannou