Editor’s column: Brian McDermott realises Toronto’s Super League dream is already at a crossroads

Toronto made the biggest rugby league signing of the off-season, and the biggest in Super League history, but if the early talk is anything to go by, their season may be dominated by attempts to prompt a required off-field revolution.

Coach Brian McDermott has just 23 players at his disposal ahead of the season opener against Castleford at Headingley in less than a fortnight, and admits they are already at the maximum salary cap permitted to them.

Absentees left them with just 18 for the pre-season game against the Tigers yesterday, with Greg Worthington out on loan with Featherstone, and Sonny Bill Williams, Chase Stanley, Darcy Lussick and Jon Wilkin on the sidelines.

He says they should be allowed a dispensation to spend over the cap, citing the fact they have to pay over the odds to attract players and also the fact they (understandably) don’t have a reserves or academy set up to fall back on.

All this comes amidst a backdrop of signing Sonny Bill Williams, the world’s most expensive player, on an eye-watering deal worth the best part of £3m a year.

Currently, there are no winners. McDermott is right, the unique situation of the Wolfpack requires greater flexibility, but at the same time you can’t compromise a competition to pander to the needs of one team. Toronto cannot thrive in the current set-up, but nor can rugby league or the other clubs. The situation is arguably more pressing than the one that required Super League to be formed in the first place.

If rugby league (or Super League) is serious about cracking North America, then it needs to take in to consideration all of the elements – whether that be logistics of flying players back and forth, accommodation both sides of the Atlantic, the development of grassroots game over there or removing the threat of relegation.

If Super League is unwilling to change, then Toronto are stuck in a cul-de-sac.

Super League could rightly say that they are reluctant to change, given the help afforded to other clubs in the past, but also the fact that the Wolfpack is arguably the most unsustainable team in the league and to adapt the competition to suit them may compromise the existing clubs and competition which, like it or not, has existed for almost three decades and most of the clubs within it for more than a century.

You could say that Toronto knew what they were getting in to when they joined. No matter how much money they have, they are only one voice when it comes to voting through changes. For all the glitz and glamour and supposed commercial benefits of having the Wolfpack, if they are having to pay over the odds to sign players so they don’t choose to play for Castleford or Wakefield, then maybe something’s gone wrong somewhere.

It’s already been proven that you can’t simply buy success in Super League. Ask Marwan Koukash, whose collection of expensive players failed to make any real in roads during his tenure, highlighted even more so by the astonishing progress made by Ian Watson and his gang of unwanted players that reached a maiden Grand Final in 2019. Even Warrington, now an established member of the big five, with all their riches still haven’t found a way of earning that elusive tag of champions.

We’re already seeing reports that Toronto’s slated “home” game against St Helens at Allianz Park, home of troubled rugby union club Saracens, is under threat and could be moved, barely two months before it is due to be played, which is as disappointing as it is unprofessional, especially with London-based Super League fans and also Saints fans travelling from further afield already having made plans to attend the game.

Whether that has anything to do with speculation that the Wolfpack may attempt to lure some of the Saracens players to rugby league, in light of their relegation from rugby union’s Premiership which will surely result in an exodus of even those they can afford to keep, remains to be seen. There has been talk the game may move to Newcastle, where Toronto “hosted” Widnes in the early stages of the Championship season last year.

Shoehorning Toronto in to the existing set-up isn’t working for anybody – they’re either going to need to play with the hand that’s been dealt them, or try and get enough others on side to push for a reform that considers the challenges and requirements that having a Trans-Atlantic (or other overseas) teams needs.

A short-term fix could be scrapping the salary cap altogether, but offering dispensations – such as unlimited quota players or a free-pass from relegation – do little but irk other fans.

One thing’s for sure, it’s going to get tiresome pretty quickly if all we’re going to get in every Toronto post-match this year is moans for dispensation.

10 Comments

  1. One thought might be to help Toronto – but with a specific condition.
    The game will grow when there is grass roots development in Canada – starting w creating a amateur league in Ontario, then expanding in to other provinces.
    To be truly successful, RL needs to establish a development league similar to county leagues in UK.
    So maybe give the Wolfpack a break, but require them to invest so much more in starting up local clubs in Ontario.

    Of note: If done properly – one province at a time – Canada would have a lot of interest in RL. Our Canadian football was originally RL – but became more Americanized in the 1930’s

    PS: if someone could get me in contact w eitherWolfpack or Ottawa team, I would be happy to help w local development

    • Ontario and BC both have domestic amateur clubs. Between 2011 and 2015, Canada actually used to play annual games against Jamaica and USA. That all stopped in 2016 with the Wolfpack bid and ever since then their national RL scene has actually gone backwards.

      Eric Perez was the mastermind who was behind both CRL’s development and TWP’s development, but as he’s stepped away from both, his successors can’t carry the mantle. CRL isn’t playing USA or Jamaica or in the World Cup, and TWP isn’t doing a damn sh-t about actually signing any Canadians even though there’s 56 Canadians in MLR and hundreds more RU players just sitting around waiting to be signed. They have (1) Toronto franchise in the MLR and a 500k salary cap. It’s going to soon be 3 and eventually 4 Canadian clubs in MLR, they’ll be well over a 100 Canadian players meanwhile TWP can’t even sign 3 players even when they’re at a player shortage and reached their cap, knowing full well that RU converts don’t fall under the cap! They should be signing them asap!

  2. If you are to have development teams you need to develop them. Melbourne took years, playing in front of small crowds but now enjoy major crowds and are an established NRL major club, why? Because the NRL turned a blind eye to salary cap breaches until Melbourne were established with a championship wining squad, superstar names and a club that could withstand the penalties when they were finally ‘caught’. Superleague should have done the same for Fulham, PSG and Catalan and should definatley do it for the wolfpack, Tolouse, new york and red star Belgrade.

    Bring on the expansion, let it expand.

  3. There are 56 Canadians playing in MLR, according to Rugby Canada’s head coach. And MLR currently only has one Toronto franchise, as they expand to BC and Montreal they’ll be well over a 100 Canadian players very soon. That’s not even factoring their Sevens players; Vancouver holds a World Sevens tournament every year and their team is ranked #7 in the world.

    There is no shortage of rugby players in Canada.

    RFL salary cap rules give an exemption to RU players switching to RL. Their first year, they don’t fall under the salary cap, and in their second year they only count 50%.

    There’s easily 500 players in Canada sitting around waiting to get signed. You can’t tell me at least 5 of those guys aren’t capable of playing RL.

    Wolfpack is hurting themselves not signing a Canadian or three, both on and off the field. Brian McDermott keeps coming up with pathetic excuses saying it will take 20-25 years to develop players. B-llsh-t. That’s how much it might take in a country where there’s no rugby, but in Canada it can be done in 1-2 years.

    Wolfpack got no mainstream publicity in Canada after winning the Championship. I’m not talking about online articles but TV and talk show appearances. That’s because they don’t have Canadians for enough people to really care about Brits and Aussies with foreign accents playing an unfamiliar sport. By the time there’s 2-3 more Canadian MLR teams, all attention will be on them and TWP loses out.

    Wolfpack seem to be open to signing RU players in England but not Canadian RU players, which makes no sense. It’s just pathetic excuse after another, including one where supporters say them not getting a cut of the UK TV deal is why they don’t have a player development program.

    There’s hundred of players waiting in Canada to be signed to a rugby deal.

    RFL just raised the salary cap recently but TWP supporters have been complaining about it before the season even started. How about wait till the middle of the year before trying to raise it again for next year? TWP can easily sign RU players to sit the bench if they won’t put them on the pitch asap. They’ve been so obsessed with getting ‘into’ Super League while blaming their shortcoming on everyone else that now that they’re here all they’re doing is blaming their shortcoming on everyone else but failing to promote their growth in Canada itself.

    If Toronto Wolfpack win the SL and Canadians don’t notice it to care, then even if they win their second trophy they won’t care. That’s the danger that they’re treading close to: apathy.

  4. What a load of tosh.

    ‘having to pay over the odds to sign players so they don’t sign for Castleford or Wakefield’.

    So you say to the top Aussie/New Zealander such as SBW ‘ you’ve got 2 choices, you can uproot your family and move to Toronto or you can uproot your family and move to Castleford’ Who’s at a disadvantage exactly?

    Brian Mc needs to stop whinging. They either play to the rules or sod off and play in their own country (or America) which, incidently would be true global expansion not hijaking the English league.

  5. The whole Toronto project and Sonny Bill Williams has massively raised the profile of the game. At last we are putting a dent into rugby union and let’s build on progress not demolish it. Endeavour and success should be rewarded and take centre stage, and Toronto actually delivered on attendances unlike many of the long term established teams who still play to empty seats and zero headlines!

    • @Pennstate Nobody is trying to derail TWP. Many fans want expansion, but it needs to be done right. I’m a relatively new fan myself and TWP was part of the appeal. But it seems the average Wolfpack fan is not very bright, all they do is throw out is financially impractical ideas and/or trying to get special treatment.

      All this does is create resentment among other fans, and now that McDermott himself has stooped to these lows it will create resentment among other clubs – who technically have collective power to kick you out.

      People are lying about the salary cap saying it hasn’t been raised in decades when it’s been raised year after year for the past 4 years.

      I was even for raising the salary cap again, but after I found out RFL has an exemption for RU players making the switch I am now thinking there is no logical reason why TWP isn’t signing some Canadian RU players. The whole 20-25 years excuse makes no sense and is just a convenient way of saying “We don’t want to”.

      Everything TWP has worked for—which is not much publicity-wise outside of the internet—will start to unravel. Not merely because of their shortage on the field but more importantly because MLR knows what it’s doing with expansion and TWP (and most other teams and internet lobbyists trying to get into League 1) don’t.

      When Canadians are met with the the choice between “Rugby with Canadians actually in it” and “Rugby that’s played overseas with weird accents and no Canadians”, most will choose the former. It is now important for RFL to publicly chastise TWP for not putting in effort to sign EXISTING Canadian players. The 20-25 years figure is a convenient LIE, but most fans don’t even know how many rugby players there are in Canada or already playing professionally in MLR (which has a salary cap of only $500k), but the RFL can’t be that stupid.

      McDermot is lying out of his teeth, and then there are the TWP shills—not fans–who mindlessly push every lie or illogical idea just because it’s politically convenient and partisan. I want Rugby League to grow, TWP to grow, and the sport to grow in the Americas, but these people are a liability in the way of all of that. They don’t see the forest for the trees, and are worse than the anti-expansionists because nobody pays attention to the latter.

  6. Just how much are these constant failures to spread the game costing ?How much better to see Bradford, Featherstone etc in Superleague bringing in real fans, real money, instead of splashing it out. Look after Grass roots first before subsidising millionaires with grandiose ideas..

  7. Why should Toronto have dispensation on the cap right from the start they knew the situation .They chose to sign all these top players and spend the cap all the other clubs have to abide by the rules and so should Toronto .They do not bring anything to the table with hardly any away fans no home club gains any income from there fans yet clubs who visit Toronto take plenty of fans with them creating income for them Just a suggestion why not take some players on loan this would give the player on loan a new outlook and give Toronto the players they require without massive overheads

  8. Well this has come as a bolt from the blue eh, Toronto not sustainable in Superleage? Are you really telling me that these supposed business brains in the RFL, Superleague and the owner of Toronto couldn’t see this coming? My local team has been playing Toronto for the past 3 years, part time teams with little money expected to be able to compete in Canada when lads can’t get off work or get visa’s, expected to drop everything and attend a game against these playground bullies with an endless budget. It has been impractical and costly to go to Canada but championship and championship 1 teams were just expected to get on with it. Well it appears things don’t suit Toronto now and they suddenly want dispensation, I don’t think it dispensation they need I think it’s sound business advice, don’t blow a large part of your player budget on NZ superstars. As for the RFL and superleague, you have to maintain a fair and equal playing field, if you want international teams in the English game then pitch them against the clubs that can afford to play them, straight into Superleague I say, if they can’t cope then tough. Do not bring these teams in against part time clubs with little money and resources and expect them to be able to compete. I’d like to know who the idiot was that tabled the idea or what he’d been taking, perhaps random drug tests should include everyone involved in rugby and not just the players!

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