This time three years ago, Toronto Wolfpack made history as they welcomed the world of rugby league to their back yard for the very first time.
The Canadian side hosted Oxford in a League 1 fixture at the Lamport Stadium in front of 6,281 fans.
Despite Toronto winning that game 62-12, former Oxford captain Callum Windley looks back fondly at the trip to Canada.
“It was amazing,” said Windley. “It’s been flashing up all over Instagram saying ‘three years ago’, all the lads have been sharing it. The fact we were the first team in history to go there and the experience itself was just unreal. It was class.”
Windley, who was named captain by then head coach Tim Rumford, tells the story of their voyage across the Atlantic.
“When we went over there, we were given no hope. In their plan, they wanted to put a hundred points past us. They didn’t realise that we weren’t just a bunch of nobody’s and that we actually have something about us. We made that pretty clear when we arrived there.
“When we pulled up at this – almost like a hospital, it was really strange accommodation – the coaches weren’t happy. They moved us to the same hotel were Toronto were staying at.
“Brian Noble (then Toronto director of rugby) met us all there. Bare in mind we’ve been travelling for a ridiculous hours at this point. We pulled up in taxis and Brian Noble was waiting outside, it was chucking down with rain and he said ‘come lads, get inside, get inside.’
“So we went inside in the main area in the reception. He said ‘We’ll give you your room key, go to your rooms and we’ll meet you at the main lobby room.’ So we went to the lobby room, by this point its half eleven at night so we’ve been travelling about 16 hours.
“David Argyle (Toronto owner) then came in with his entourage of people with loads of food. He went ‘Right lads, we’ll look after you all. Whatever happens tomorrow happens. Don’t worry about it, I’ll make sure you have a good time.’
“All the lads were thinking, at least we’re getting looked after now. But he kind of made out like ‘we’ll score points past you but we’ll make sure you have a good time afterwards’. That was a bit like saying to us, just pack in and don’t give it a go. Obviously, that didn’t go down well with our coaches.
“Next day we went to train, we had some food beforehand, it was getting a bit surreal because you’re in the city centre and you’ve got all the skyscrapers around you.
“The game happened. It was quite fiery, I got sent off. In all the press that I’ve been reading afterwards, their coaches were insinuating that we were punching in the tackles and being dirty. I never remember that at all, I remember from a personal point of view that I got punched three times so I retaliated.
“There was one on camera that you can’t miss. I was walking when the scuffle started happening, someone came across and whacked us in the jaw. Blake Wallace grabbed me and he threw the first punch. I’m a believer that if you’re willing to give it, you’re willing to take it. As he whacked us, the referee’s report said that I got about eight punches in after that.
“As it shows in the video, the winger comes behinds me, grabs me by the neck and pulls me by the floor. So as I got up eventually, it kind of got split up.”
Toronto went on to win the game quite comfortably on the scoreboard, however, Oxford had certainly provided a good account of themselves with regards to their determined attitude. When asked whether this had been one of his best rugby league experiences, Windley said: “It’s definitely one of them.
“To lead these lads out was unreal. I’m really grateful to have been given the nod to be the captain. They’re probably one of the best groups of lads that I’ve ever played with. Everyone had their own little story to tell from the background that they had with academies and not necessarily making it in the right path in rugby. We all kind of came together. It was like playing with your brothers – leading them out was amazing.
“There was almost seven thousand people there. Throughout the game they were really loud and passionate and you could hear what they were saying. That was something new for the players because a lot of us hadn’t played in front of a crowd like that.
“I remember when we scored our first try, it was almost like we made them think ‘wait a minute, this wasn’t meant to happen’. I started jumping up to the fans and giving some back.
“It was funny actually when I set up another try, I put a kick through for the full back Jordan Gill and he dropped it over the line but I didn’t see that at the time. I started jumping to the big side of the crowd, with my hands in the air, shushing them and they were just laughing with the try being disallowed. I got a little caught up in the moment there.
“Afterwards, when I got sent off I was sent into the stands and the fans were saying everything under the sun. But after the game they had all these beer tents set up and the fans came up to us, shaking hands, taking photos, asking about what England’s like.
“I said to a couple of them, these hardcore ones who had these fancy hats on, I said ‘What’s the deal with you. You’ve been calling me all these names under the sun all game and now you’re acting like my best mate.’ They said ‘That’s what we do in Canada, we support our team to the final whistle. Afterwards we just like to socialise with the opposition’. I really like it to be honest. During the game they’re against you but after they’re with you. They’re good people.”
As one of the first players to experience an away day in Toronto, Windley believes this is the right direction for rugby league.
He added: “I am a supporter of it because I think the game needs to grow. I love what they have done. They have opened up a new gateway, North America is massively into their sports.
“I would love to see the game grow over there. From a personal point of view and the people I have spoke to, we would jump at the chance to play there again or be part of that. In my opinion this will make the game grow. More fans, more opportunities for players to go on tour. One of my best experiences was going to Canada, I think other people should have the opportunity to do the same.”
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