The Toronto Wolfpack and Featherstone Rovers square off Saturday with both pride at stake and a Super League berth on the line.
Toronto posted a 27-1 season and is a heavy favourite entering the game. Last year, Toronto was upset 4-2 by the London Broncos, and the team has been motivated throughout the year by the shocking loss to gain another chance at promotion.
Featherstone, meanwhile, has been barreling through the playoffs, first defeating Leigh Centurions 34-18 in the elimination final, then dispatching York City Knights 30-4 before beating Toulouse Olympique 36-12 in the preliminary final.
The Rovers went 17-10 during the regular season but their recent run of form suggests a tougher test than imagined.
Here’s how the Wolfpack and Rovers match up.
Wolfpack wing Matty Russell was a dangerous force in the first matchup between the teams, notching a hat trick in a 23-14 victory in England on April 22. Russell was held out of the July 13 rematch due to injury, which Toronto won 22-18, but now that he’s back in top form, his blistering pace should cause plenty of problems for the visiting side.
Gareth O’Brien is one of three Wolfpack players to sweep the Player of the Year nominations and the fullback is the key to Toronto’s scorching offence. O’Brien’s distribution is fantastic, he’s capable of scoring tries of his own, converts at a successful rate and has excelled at rugby league’s highest levels.
O’Brien is expecting an aggressive effort from the Rovers.
“They're going to run hard. We've previewed them this week. Our assistant coaches have been telling us, they just run harder than their opposition in their three playoff games. So we've got to match that and we've got to run harder. They're going to be a physical team, we've played them twice already this year and it's been close on each occasion. Expecting a tough test,” O’Brien said.
Ricky Leutele has been in fantastic form at centre for the Wolfpack, earning Man of the Match honours in the semifinal against Toulouse, while Joe Mellor has been an all-around dynamo at stand-off. At any given time, one of the Wolfpack’s backs is liable to score tries in bunches, and this group’s dominance at the Championship level cannot be understated.
Ashton Golding is a major key to Featherstone’s offence at fullback and the Jamaican international will be counted upon to be at his best if his club is to advance. At 23, Golding has plenty of potential and is currently on loan from Super League staple Leeds.
Featherstrone scrum half Dane Chisholm is among the better players in the league, signing with the club for the duration of the season after initially being loaned from Bradford. Chisholm dictates the offence for Featherstone, and though he’s a quality player, he’ll be hard pressed against Toronto’s superior depth and talent across the board.
Jon Wilkin came to the Wolfpack with the express goal of leading the franchise to Super League. A veteran of the Super League who has starred at every level rugby league has to offer, Wilkin emerged as a Player of the Year candidate after a standout career with powerhouse St. Helens and will be the most dominant forward on the field Saturday.
Not to be outdone, hooker Andy Ackers is the third Wolfpack nominee for Player of the Year and though it’s not his primary responsibility, he’s proven capable of scoring tries in bunches.
Gadwin Springer, Bodene Thompson and Tom Olbison, along with Wilkin, came from either the Super League or Australia’s National Rugby League to help the Wolfpack earn a promotion. Simply put, this is a loaded roster that has experience across the board, and it’s little wonder why the Wolfpack dominate possession throughout most games.
Featherstone boasts a number of forwards that have previously thrived in the Super League, including Josh Walters and Thomas Minns, but it will be without hooker Cameron King, who suffered a concussion. Walters helped Leeds win the Super League in 2015 and is capable of huge moments, and it may take the performance of his career to knock off the Wolfpack.
Toronto’s superior talent and depth wins out here, with all due respect to Featherstone.
Brian McDermott’s imprint is all over the Wolfpack and his players have raved about his demeanour and impact throughout the season. “Big Mac” has won four Super League titles and his performance with the Wolfpack in 2019 may be among his strongest work to date.
Featherstone coach Paul Carr is considered a rising talent in his debut season with the club, and the 31-year-old has been lauded for his ability at maximizing the talent around him. This is a bit unfair to Carr, but McDermott’s proven track record gets the nod here.
Advantage: Wolfpack by slight edge
At 27-1, the Wolfpack have been the dominant team in the competition. There’s little wonder why, with an all-star team of backs and forwards working in equal measure, with the goal of qualifying for the Super League permeating over the season. It would be a seismic upset if Featherstone pulls it off.
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