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.