Wolfpack on verge on mainstream ascension while using Raptors as model

Arun Srinivasan
The Toronto Wolfpack are one win away reaching the top level of Rugby League. (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
The Toronto Wolfpack are one win away reaching the top level of Rugby League. (Rick Madonik/Toronto Star via Getty Images)

The Toronto Raptors won the NBA championship for the first time. Bianca Andreescu became the first Canadian player to win a Grand Slam event in singles. Now, the Toronto Wolfpack have an opportunity to emerge into the Canadian mainstream in what has proven to be a banner year for the country.

Since their inception in 2016, the Wolfpack, by and large, have been treated as a curiosity looming out of Toronto’s Liberty Village which also inhabits Major League Soccer’s Toronto FC. Oddly enough, TFC was once seen as the city’s little brother until a MLS Cup title in 2017 ended their fight for legitimacy.

Now, the Wolfpack are on the brink of reaching the same relevancy, with an opportunity to advance to the Super League, the top-tier rugby league competition based out of England.

“It would be massive,” Wolfpack fullback Gareth O’Brien said to Yahoo Sports Canada about the prospect of being promoted. “We were over there when the Raptors won the NBA playoffs, the championship there. We actually sat in the airport when Bianca won the US Open, so I think there's a real buzz around the country at the minute. We've had some big wins.”

“So, this would be massive for the sport. Another big win for the city as well. So hopefully we can get the job done.”

If you look past the romantic notion of a team breaking out of their cocoon, so to speak, the Wolfpack demand your attention. Toronto is 26-0-1, with its lone loss coming against Toulouse on March 9. Since then, it has racked up 22 consecutive victories. Furthermore, the Wolfpack are slated to clean up during awards season, sweeping the Player of the Year nominees with O’Brien, Jon Wilkin and Andy Ackers vying for the honour.

Wolfpack head coach Brian McDermott joined the team ahead of the 2019 season and has been taken aback by the city and sports culture that surrounds it.

“Just in Toronto — in Canada, but certainly in Toronto — I've been pleasantly shocked with how well-known the team is,” McDermott said.

“You go around a couple of establishments, they've got some memorabilia, some shirts, some photographs of players in there. I was walking through the city a couple of days ago, with a t-shirt on, walking back from training — and what do you call the lollipop ladies (crossing guards) over here? One of the guys said 'hey, well done, great season, finish it off.' And it's just good to walk around a city that is as big, and well-known and is famous as Toronto that they're aware of what we're doing.”

“I think you can magnify that if we're in a higher echelon, in the top competition. The club has an ambition to emulate the Raptors. It's going to take a few years to do that, but that's where it starts and it starts with something like that.”

Wilkin spent the past 17 seasons with St. Helens and helped the club finish first during the Super League regular season in 2018. A decorated veteran who has thrived at every level, winning caps for England internationally, Wilkin was attracted by the opportunity to help a new club dripping with potential rise to the occasion.

“Ultimately, that's the aim of what we're doing, isn't it? To raise the profile of rugby league,” Wilkin said. “The club has done some great things. Some success for the city of Toronto, I think is always well-received. I feel the momentum growing behind the Wolfpack as a franchise.

“But, winning a trophy, getting into Super League, playing at the top level of sport would be incredible. And hopefully that's the start of really growing the Toronto Wolfpack.”

The 35-year-old glowed about his experience in Toronto, which is on par with any experience he’s had during his career.

“The club's in a great position, it would add fantastically to rugby league as a brand in North America, in Canada. There's a huge opportunity for the game of rugby league,” Wilkin said.

“The people of Toronto love it. The matchday experience here is pound-for-pound the best matchday experience I've been involved in in my time in rugby league. I've played in test matches in Sydney, I've played in Grand Finals, Challenge Cup Finals in front of 85,000 people at Wembley, Old Trafford, 80,000 people. And the best matchday experience, pound-for-pound is the Allan Lamport Stadium. And that's not something to be sniffed at.”

A team boasting all three player of the year candidates, and a coach of the year candidate in McDermott would certainly be a compelling draw for any Toronto-based sports fan. It’s been a championship summer in Toronto, and with a dominant team, a winning culture, and a market always ready for a winner, there’s no reason why the Wolfpack shouldn’t enter the mainstream with a promotion to the Super League.

More Wolfpack from Yahoo Sports Canada