From Featherstone’s glass ceiling to Toronto’s Canadian dream

James Gordon

It’s the ultimate expansion against flatcappers clash in the Championship Grand Final on Saturday as little old Featherstone take on big-spending Toronto Wolfpack.

A small Yorkshire town with a population of less than 20,000 takes on the most populated city in Canada, almost 150 times its size.

None of that matters for 80 minutes on Saturday though, as Featherstone seek a remarkable fourth consecutive away win in the play-offs to deny Toronto’s hopes of promotion for another year.

It would be a shame for Toronto not to make the step up to Super League this time round, such has been their dominance of the Championship in the past two seasons.

They even managed to win five games from seven in The Qualifiers in 2018, before going down to London Broncos in the Million Pound Game.

You can’t deny that their efforts deserve a shot at the top flight, though the format dictates that they must see off Featherstone one last time at Lamport Stadium this Saturday.

Featherstone know how it feels to be the dominant side in the division without reward.

Under Daryl Powell, they were League Leaders’ Shield winners in 2010, 2011 and 2012, going on to win the Championship Grand Final in the middle of that run, at a time where there was no promotion or relegation due to the licensing era.

They decided not to throw their hat in to the ring for a Super League licence in 2012, instead opting to prepare suitable for an application in 2014 – only for the rug to be pulled from their feet with yet another structure change.

Despite the frustration of missing out on the chance of returning to the top flight for the first time in the summer era, the improvements that era prompted leaves Featherstone in a decent place – their re-developed ground is a credit to the club and the volunteers that worked so hard to make it happen, and puts their near neighbours to shame, especially given that Castleford and Wakefield have had two decades worth of Super League revenue to upgrade their stadia.

While Featherstone’s fairytale run to the Grand Final has captured hearts, it’s not all rosy in their garden. They have used more than 20 players from other clubs this season, be it on loan or on dual-registration, and their close link with Leeds has undoubtedly strengthened their position, although you might argue it is the perfect example of how the much maligned dual-registration initiative should work.

If they do go up, they will have to recruit significantly – maybe we’ll see a number of “loans” from Leeds ala London Broncos a few years ago, where players “sign” for Featherstone with an agreement to return to the Rhinos at the end of the year.

There’s also uncertainty over coach Ryan Carr, who himself has linked up with Leeds this year as an assistant coach in his rookie year. The joy of a win in Toulouse at the weekend was perhaps somewhat tempered by the newspaper reports on Monday morning that James Webster was looking the most likely replacement for Carr next season, though he would surely stay if he achieved the unimaginable and got Featherstone to the promised land.

As for Toronto, not getting promotion for a second successive year could spell disaster. Whether they would want to stomach the costs of competing in the Championship for another year remains to be seen – though should that unlikely eventuality happen, the Wolfpack and their partners may still find it attractive, with London returning, the possibility of Newcastle jumping up, Whitehaven flying the flag for Cumbria, the French connection in Toulouse playing at the impressive rugby union ground, York in their new ground and big rugby league names of yesteryear like Bradford and Widnes in there too.

Toronto have done everything that’s been asked of them and it would be a shambles if they are refused promotion to Super League should they beat Featherstone.

The Wolfpack have won all but one of their 28 games this season – away at Toulouse in March – and haven’t played away from Lamport Stadium since August 4.

They had three players shortlisted for the Championship Player of the Year, eventually won by Gareth O’Brien, and their squad includes several players with experience in games even bigger than this – nonemoreso than Jon Wilkin.

There are plenty of survivors too from last year’s shock defeat to London, which will no doubt prove motivation to get it done this time.

While all the pressure is on them, and Featherstone have nothing to lose, it’s difficult to see Toronto failing to achieve their goals this time round. Though as we’ve seen before, it only takes a mistake, an early red card, or a terrific performance by the underdog. Either way, it’s an intriguing contest.

Whatever your opinion on overseas teams and licensing, the Wolfpack have come along and played in the third and second tier to earn their stripes on the pitch. Yes, they’ve spent a lot of money in doing so, but they have earned their way up by playing rugby.

For too long the focus in rugby league has been off the pitch – and in some ways, that’s why people want Toronto to succeed.

They want the big cities and the hypothetical broadcast and commercial deals that will follow.

But it would be unfair to judge Toronto on that alone. They haven’t earned their place in Super League because they are a big city. They have earned it by winning rugby league games on the pitch – and after all, that’s all it should be about.