Amidst the backdrop of Toronto’s dramatic withdrawal from the 2020 season, planning for the next Canadian entry to the RFL system continues in Ottawa.
The Ottawa Aces are slated to join League One for the 2021 season, taking the competition up to 12 teams, and will take a different route to the Wolfpack – having bought Hemel Stags, and with that crucially membership of the RFL.
That means the Aces will have their say as RFL members and will qualify for a share of central funding from day one.
After appointing Frenchman Laurent Frayssinous as their first head coach recently, the Aces have started to be linked with players for their inaugural squad.
And there isn’t likely to be any visa dramas with it either – with the club set to avoid extensive recruiting from Down Under and instead focus on developing homegrown talent amongst European players.
The brainchild of the Aces, Eric Perez, told us: “We come in with a different operating environment to Toronto. First and foremost we are proud members of the RFL.
“There will be very few Australians or Kiwis in our first couple of years and we’ll recruit as many Canadians as possible.
“We’re in deep negotiation with 12 players and I expect we’ll start making regular announcements imminently. It’s very exciting.
“We’ve got players in our sights that have played in Super League, some that have been in the Championship for a long time, some in League 1 and some that have been in Super League systems that haven’t got a crack at first team football.”
“We’re looking to build a team with the right chemistry. We want players who are good in the locker room, and who are good on trips. We’re trying to find out what kind of bloke they are before recruiting them.
“We’ll have some French players, some Canadians and a base of good Brits who know the competition best, a mix of crafty veterans and young talent, that can mix and create a good team spirit, which is important when you’re away together for 13/14 weeks of the year.”
More on Ottawa
One of the common criticisms of Toronto over recent years has been their lack of homegrown talent, somewhat understandable given their short life.
While rugby league has existed in Canada for a decade or so, it’s not necessarily about not wanting to give some players a chance – but visa restrictions which prevent Canadian players getting a work permit to play in the UK.
That’s because Canada’s world ranking is too low to meet the eligibility criteria set by the Home Office.
Perez said: “It’s difficult because of that. The RFL are doing a lot of work to try and rectify the situation. Everyone wants us to bring through Canadian players.
“It would have been nice if Canada had qualified for the World Cup, but they’re at a disadvantage because USA and Jamaica were made up of mostly heritage players.
“Within 10-15 years, hopefully we’ll be able to produce Canadian domestic squads that can be competitive.
“In the meantime, we’ll be looking at CFL (Canadian Football League) players and some rugby union players have showed an interest as well.
“We’ll have a try out in Ottawa in the fall, invite a core group of elite athletes, and then integrate them with the national team and local clubs if for whatever reason, they can’t play for us straight away.
“If they show promise, League One is the best place to try them out and be upskilled to make a massive impact.
“I can’t promise we’ll have loads of Canadians, but maybe if we can get three or four guys that stick with the team over a long period, maybe wingers, props, second rows that we can supplement with experience, that will be progress. It’s important not to underestimate League 1, it will take a special athlete to step in at this level from Canada and we are hoping to find some.”
Ottawa unveiled the Aces brand back in March, which Perez says is inspired by the legendary Canadian flying ace from the First World War, Billy Bishop – as well as being a “pretty cool name”!
Ontario native Bishop was in the RAF and received a number of honours, including the Victoria Cross, and became known as a true Canadian hero as the best fighter pilot in the country. His 72 victories made him the top RAF ace of WW1.
The Aces launch was followed by the appointment of Frayssinous in July, which may well be a shrewd one for a club from a truly bi-lingual city, with reporting in both English and French likely to help spread the word about the Aces path.
That link may well see Ottawa undertake pre-season training in France.
The fluid situation surrounding the coronavirus pandemic looks like resolving itself so that 2021 can start on-time – although it may well have done Ottawa a favour had the start been delayed, as they won’t be able to play home games in Canada until April.
As with Toronto’s first season, the Aces will likely play games in blocks – starting off the season away from home before introducing rugby league to Ottawa first hand.
At a time where uncertainty shrouds Toronto, it’s all systems go for Ottawa and spring can’t come soon enough.