How I learned to stop worrying and love Rugby League

As the Toronto Wolfpack are about to embark in their first ever Super 8s, it is impossible to look back upon this, their first and most likely last season, in Kingstone Press League One and be critical. Their 73-16 victory over the visiting Hemel Stags was the exclamation mark that ended their perfect 15-0 regular season and ended my introduction into Rugby League. The Wolfpack organization will be the first to tell you however, that not everything is perfect and that there is still much to improve upon both on and off the field. Not to mention that there are a number of people across the pond that have still not bought into this idea of expansion and our upset with Toronto or League in general. While there are also those on this side of the Atlantic who haven’t even given RL a chance because it isn’t hockey, baseball or any other “recognizable” sport. No worries, we can worry about those “blokes” at another time. For now though, let’s concentrate on the far too many positives that happened and how I learned to stop worrying and love Rugby League.

My first attraction to the Toronto Wolfpack, wasn’t even the fact that they played Rugby League. To be honest, I had no idea back then that there were even different kinds of rugby. You won’t believe how long I was clueless to what those “This is different. League.” adverts meant. They make sooooo much more sense now. But what first attracted me to the Wolfpack was the logo. As a Torontonian and with my favourite animal being a wolf, well, it had all my bases covered. But I began to worry that this was not a good “first” reason to like a sport and felt it was a bad omen. Considering how much I still enjoy learning about the sport, I am no longer afraid to once again boast that it is the Best. Damn. Logo. Ever. Omens be damned.

Speaking of omens, I am also a Toronto Maple Leafs fan which means I am no stranger to losing seasons. I was worried that this new home team, even with the best logo ever, would get beaten up each and every game this first year, that it might hurt to watch over and over again. It was quite surprising then to find out the Wolfpack lost their exhibition game to Hull only 26-20. They might not be as bad as I originally thought. Not because they lost by 6 points to a team that is Top 5 in the Super League (yes, I had no idea what Super League was back then either) but because they only lost by 6 points. Period. New teams are supposed to lose and lose by a lot during their inaugural season. You can imagine therefore the absolute shock I was in when I saw I read from my phone that their first League 1 game was a 76-0 victory. Thankfully my phone has a protective cover as I picked it up off the floor. I checked again. Nope,the score didn’t change it still read 76-0. Little did I ever imagine this team wasn’t going to be the one thrashed, they were the ones to do the thrashing. It wasn’t until later that I found out how well the team was put together; how fantastically skilled these players are and how League 1 is the third tier of Rugby League in the UK.

Blake Wallace scores 3 tries & signs autographs in his first game back from injury.

As the victories increased, so did my interest in the team. Even with the loss in the Ladbrokes Cup to the Salford Red Devils, this team, or rather this concept (as I hadn’t even met the team yet) of being the first cross Atlantic team began to resonate more and more. I got used to the idea that this was not a normal startup, and that Toronto could be seeing a winning team sooner than expected. It was with some trepidation on May 4th therefore to interview the team and those associated with it for the first time. I was worried, anxious and extremely nervous as I never felt knowledgeable enough. Maybe they would find out how little I know about Rugby League, maybe they would take that as an insult to “their” team and to “their” sport. Needless to say, they caught me completely off-guard that day not so much with their friendliness alone, but with their humility. They were the ones happy to be in Toronto, they were the ones to willingly and happily promote the sport of Rugby League in this city and they were the ones to welcome everyone into that family regardless of how much or how little you knew about the sport. They were more than happy to teach you, to share with you their experiences and their love for the game.

Listening to coach Paul Rowley answer questions in such a colourful and refreshing manner eased my fears greatly. All I had to do was record his quotes because they were brilliant. The first of many was how he described Rugby League as “psychotic but gentlemanly players hitting each other like mini car crashes over and over again.” How can you not want to find out more about a sport when it is described like that?

Coach Paul Rowley during the game letting us know it is all good.

As mentioned before, I had been worried about how new all this was to me, but it was only then when I realized that this wasn’t just a brand new journey for the city of Toronto but for the players and coaches themselves. It was the first time I sensed such an equality between the fans and the players of a sport. Credit to Paul Rowley who told his team after their first home victory on May 6th, that “what is happening here isn’t normal, but who says normal is right anyway?” So they, like the rest of us have become equal partners in seeing this sport grow into something special not just for Toronto, but for all of League.

The games themselves have been entertaining, but truthfully have lacked drama. I mean, how dramatic can a game be when you win by more than 50 points on average. Putting the score aside however, the fans do get invested into each game and the sport and are slowly learning more and more about the rules. They enjoy the scoring, the hitting and yes, don’t mind the occasional fisticuffs that develop as well. It is a fast paced, jarring sport that requires skill, speed, stamina, brawn and brain. Really, what’s not to love about Rugby League? Oh yeah, and there’s this too…

Blake Wallace and James Laithwaite have an ice bath, Wolfpack style

With each and every home game now my worries have dissipated completely as that player and fan partnership continues to grow into something more and more special. For a brand new sport to have on average 6000+ fans (this past week’s 7247 was the largest) is an incredible accomplishment. To have players, both home and visiting, take the time to walk the stadium after the game to greet the fans, sign autographs and take selfies is something that again, just never gets old.

The gameday experience keeps getting better and better with the Shewolves dance pack, the Hot Dog gun and supporter groups of varying sizes such as the Wolves (@WolvesSG) and the Wolfettes (@TOWolfettes). Everyone is treated as an equal whether you are a player or a fan. Case in point, there is a group of fans that dress in wolf “onesie” costumes for every game; they are called the Wolfpack Pack (@WolfPackPackTO). Not only do players celebrate with them after they score, but fans of all ages now ask to take pictures with them as well that they are technically part of that game day experience.

It has become easier to profess my love for the Wolfpack as I no longer feel alone with that many people having such a great time at “the Den” on Saturday afternoons. But the Wolfpack are not just a local phenomenal either. There are Wolfpack fans in the UK, there are some as we found out from the last article, in New Zealand and Australia as well. They all want to see the Wolfpack succeed, because they know that how well the Wolfpack do will go a long way to how well Rugby League expands. They know this is one of the greatest sports on earth and they, like me, just want to share it with as many people as they can.

Quinn Ngawati signing his first professional Rugby League contract

For further information regarding the Toronto Wolfpack and Rugby League, please follow @wolfcastto. Also check the out the rest of the Wolfcast Toronto pages for the latest podcast and photos and hear Canadian Quinn Ngawati as he becomes the first Canadian born player to sign a Rugby League contract.

By Dario Passarelli / @PapaDart

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