Due to the harsh Canadian winters, Toronto Wolfpack and marquee signing Sonny Bill Williams are set for their Super League debuts with a “home” game against Castleford Tigers at Leeds Rhinos’ Headingley Stadium on Sunday, 2 February 2020.
The area is pretty well-versed in major sporting occasions. Adjacent to the rugby league ground is the home of Yorkshire County Cricket Club where England invariably play a Test or limited overs internationals each and every year.
However, before the cricket season begins, Headingley is the stage upon which the next chapter of Wolfpack’s remarkable and rapid rise through rugby league will begin. Cross-code star Williams only heightens attention on this Toronto team, coached by former Rhinos boss Brian McDermott.
During almost eight years in Leeds, he steered that Super League side to eight major trophies across all competitions. McDermott’s Rhinos achieved domestic dominance in 2015 with a memorable Treble that included a successful defence of the Challenge Cup.
Whether he can scale similar heights with the newly promoted Championship winners Wolfpack remains to be seen. This is an ambitious rugby league club, however, who have made a clear statement of intent for the campaign ahead with their coup capture of Kiwis and All Blacks international Sonny Bill.
Whichever code of rugby Williams turns out in, one player doesn’t make a team and that is reflected in Toronto rugby league odds of 20/1 for Grand Final success in Super League 2020. Plenty has been and will continue to be written about Sonny Bill signing, but casual fans need to know what to expect.
An explosive centre for New Zealand in union, Williams has previously played as a second row forward for NRL clubs Canterbury Bulldogs and Sydney Roosters. A dual Rugby World Cup winner in the other code, he scored 16 tries for the All Blacks in 58 caps.
Although league internationals happen less frequently, Sonny Bill has only crossed four times in 12 Kiwis appearances. At the age of 34, he’s not exactly in his prime either but remains a box office draw that is sure to pull in more followers of both Wolfpack specifically and Super League in general.
Williams’ arrival at the Championship play-off or Million Pound Game winners might give the sport in the Northern Hemisphere a much-needed shot in the arm. The Canadian club is very much opening up a new frontier for rugby league across the Atlantic where American football is a more popular pastime.
We won’t see the Wolfpack actually play a home Super League game in Canada until Saturday, 18 April. How they do during what amounts effectively to a winter tour of Britain will shape the rest of their season.
No Super League opposition, starting with Hull FC on that date, is going to relish the transatlantic trip to play a match. For all Toronto are away from their actual home for the first two months of the season, this unique situation is one they and McDermott must turn to their advantage.
After reaching Super League just three years after being founded and signing Sonny Bill, watch this space and don’t discount the Wolfpack.