Four weeks ago, myself, my little brother Jonny and my good friend Sam embarked on rugby league’s newest and most outlandish away day yet, and it was certainly one that we will never forget.
I appreciate as a part-time player a trip to Toronto and back in a matter of days is a tall order, but as a fan it was an incredible experience.
In the three days we were there we had dinner in a revolving restaurant at the top of the CN Tower (Bison steak no less!), took in a Toronto Blue Jays baseball game and explored the shores of Lake Ontario.
Despite the lopsided scoreline – Toronto easing to a 64-22 victory over a keen but ultimately tired York City Knights (including a devastating ten try burst in 27 minutes either side of half-time) – it was a hugely enjoyable game.
The Wolfpack fans were incredible. Thousands of men, women and children all seemingly having the time of their lives. They were all so friendly and welcoming, and keen to find out more about the game and their opponents that day.
Afterwards came the party, and something the Wolfpack have nailed down already, the fan/player interaction. For nearly two hours after the game players from both Toronto and York happily took selfies and shook hands with the supporters that stayed behind (many hundreds of which) while mingling in the fan village, where the music played, beers were drank.
The game day experience is something else – around six thousand fans that are brand new to rugby league, craft beer marquees, cheerleaders, a live DJ and even a hot dog cannon! – for a club little over six months old it is nothing short of phenomenal.
Not only that, but the club is already taking rugby league into a vast new North Atlantic market, their media coverage so far has included articles in the New York Times and even Esquire magazine, as well as broadcasting their – so far flawless – Kingstone Press League 1 campaign into millions of households in both Canada and the United States.
The avenues this could potentially open for the sport down the line are cause for much excitement, though it is important for all concerned to remember to develop a mighty strong walk, before they start to run.
This season has been an important learning curve in terms of figuring out the logistics for how a professional transatlantic sports team will work. York, Hunslet, Coventry, Barrow, Gloucester, Oxford and Hemel can be proud that they have played a crucial part in what could be another watershed moment for our sport.
As the Wolfpack progress through the divisions and some sort of logistical routine is forged, it will become easier for clubs to travel across for games – especially at full-time level. Much like Catalan for the last ten years, fans can now look forward to planning a holiday around watching their team play in a unique setting in an amazing country.
And it’s not as expensive as you might imagine either – direct return flights from Manchester to Toronto with Air Transat (main sponsors of the Wolfpack), plus three nights in a 4* hotel in the heart of the entertainment district cost me just £680, and there are plenty of options to suit all budgets.
The argument that Toronto are bad for the game because they don’t bring any ‘away fans’ is somewhat baffling too, considering they have introduced roughly 6,000 brand new fans (and counting) to the sport almost overnight, in a brand new city. It should be that we are focusing on and shouting it from the rooftops!
And if after all these years a club is still relying on the gate receipts of another club’s fans to keep afloat, then I can only imagine that the Toronto travelling contingent will be the least of their worries…
Now York City Knights are preparing to play the Wolfpack for the second time this month – this time at their Bootham Crescent home in the heart of the Minster City – and the buzz around the game has been the biggest I’ve felt for a Knights game perhaps since 2005.
Social media activity from both the club and its fans has into overdrive this week, well known figures in the game such as Barrie McDermott, Paul Sculthorpe, Adrian Morley and even Nigel Wood lending their support to the game has led to the fans, community clubs and even local schools and York Council joining in (#UpTheKneets!).
An unprecedented Super League style press conference featuring James Ford, Adam Robinson, Brian Noble, Rich Whiting and Craig Hall on Tuesday night to preview the game was a lot of fun also.
The progress made by the Knights both on and off the field in the last eight months has in many ways been just as impressive as Toronto’s meteoric rise, if not more.
From nothing, owner Jon Flatman and head coach James Ford have put together a classy team with just the right balance of youth and experience, who keep improving with every game. It’s genuinely exciting to see just how far this squad can go if it reaches its full potential over the next few years.
Crucially, this exciting team on the field is now ably supported by a brilliant team off it. ‘The team behind the team’ all know the important roles they have and with us all pulling in the right direction, the results are now starting to speak for themselves.
The club has never been more engaged in the the community it represents, they have just relaunched their EXCEL player pathway programme (a scholarship in all but name), it’s all systems go for the new community stadium, and the fans are coming back (including lots of kids under 16, who can watch the Knights completely free of charge). Sunday’s game is a testament to all that!
Sunday’s League 1 Super 8s Round 1 game should be a fantastic occasion. Helpfully, there are no Super League or Championship games on this weekend, which gives a lot of fans of other clubs the perfect opportunity to make the short trip to York to see the newest team in the game, true pioneers and a breath of fresh air for rugby league in the Toronto Wolfpack.
It has been fantastic to see the amount of progress both teams have made this season for their own reasons, considering Toronto only played their first competitive game in March, and considering the Knights initially weren’t even included in the fixture list this season!
Any reservations I might have had about the Toronto experiment have certainly disappeared – the Wolfpack are here to stay, and they mean business.
Obviously they are far too strong for this division, but on the day you just never know what might happen. Swinton won at Huddersfield in the cup this year – and on their own patch I fancy the Knights to give the all conquering Wolfpack their toughest test yet…
Bring on Sunday!
(York v Toronto match tickets available online HERE. Adults £15, Concessions £10, Under 16s FREE)
(Photos kindly provided by Chris McPhee)