Monday, 16 July 2018

Saturday's Coming: Toronto

When we wrote about Toronto back in March, we were taken aback by the sheer volume of media hype surrounding the club. Journalists were falling over themselves to toe the party line, spit out the soundbites and create a sense of frontier excitement around what is essentially a load of ex-Leigh sluggers and ex-NRL journeymen coached by Paul Rowley. And fronted by Nobby off the telly.

A parochial sporting media desperate for any sense of pioneering exoticism lapped it up. The Rugby League revolution would be televised. For a tenner a month, on Premier Sports.

But amidst the hoo-ha, they let the facade slip in that now infamous televised Challenge Cup game at Warrington. The tactics used to bully weaker teams were put under the extreme scrutiny of multiple camera angles, a referee’s microphone - and a Wolves side in no mood to be pushed around on their own patch.

In less than an hour, 18 months of PR-induced sheen was tarnished. Toronto revealed as a bunch of narcissist gobshites with a thug complex.

Four months on from our original piece, Toronto have already won the Championship: racing undefeated through the season on a wave of hubris (a draw at Barrow and a one point win at Spotland their ‘low points’). 

It seems, though, that all-conquering success has come at a price. 

Toronto are no longer seen simply as the uber-expansionist’s giant-leap into an exciting North American unknown. Previously considered a ‘concept’ - a conceit even - the reality of Rugby League’s Wild West adventure is now on Super League’s horizon.

And it’s not a reality they like the look of.

In League 1 and the Championship, clubs have - for two years - been voicing concerns over the way the RFL has bent over backwards to accommodate Toronto.

Notwithstanding weakened teams flying out there for a flogging (Batley travelled with only 16 players - one of those was assistant coach Danny Maun who’d come out of retirement to play); the administrative burden of arranging 23 visas; visa issues leaving players stranded at Manchester Airport; the costs incurred by feeding 23 people for four days; bending the operating laws to play games to a timetable that suits them; Air Transat flying teams out of Manchester and back to Glasgow (with teams having to pick-up the £1000+ tab for a coach to get players back to the North West) while the RFL fly officials back via Air Canada to Manchester; no limit on overseas players and the uneven playing field of a mining magnate shovelling cash into a bottomless pit of dubious potential - it is a difficult trip for players to go out there and perform to the best of their ability.

As such, clubs have been ‘beta testing’ the Toronto experience on behalf of the RFL for two years - and the list of snags goes on and on and on. But amidst clubs’ valid concerns about Toronto’s negative impact on the credibility and integrity (and this is a theme we’ll come back to) of the competitions they’ve butchered, no-one at Rugby League’s top table has given much of a shit - until now.

Logic v Logistics
Unless you’ve been stranded in a Thai cave for the last six months, you’ll have noticed that Toronto have run-away with the Championship to become racing certainties for promotion to Super League.

But now they’re on Super League’s radar, the ‘elite tier’ of the game are having doubts about the validity and credibility of Toronto’s potential inclusion in the top flight.

In a brutally honest interview with last week, Hull KR Chairman Neil Hudgell voiced that - at Super League’s highest level there is a “… cautiousness about the Toronto experience…”

Whilst admitting that they could open up new TV markets in North America, Hudgell appears somehow surprised that the problem with Toronto is “… the logistics of getting there, and fixture scheduling!” The fact that 26 other clubs have been banging that drum unheard for two years gives you some insight into the contempt for which the game outside Super League is held. But wearing our most munificent hat, we should be glad that someone else is actually listening.

Pretty much everyone has already wondered exactly how Toronto have managed to inveigle their way into our game and re-write the operating laws to suit them. Now - better late then never - Hudgell (and SLE Ltd) is now on the same page as the rest of us.

“There’s some due diligence that still needs to be done with Toronto, that should have been done before they were allowed into competition.” he said. “Super League clubs are being asked to deal with some of the issues, that should never have been issues if the due diligence had been done in the first place.” Yeah, true - but clubs on far smaller budgets, far fewer resources and part-time playing staffs have been dealing with those issues already. Only now Toronto are coming your way do you see the tsunami of bullshit trailing in their wake.

Smoke v Mirrors
To his credit, Hudgell sees the passion of the ownership to deliver Rugby League in North America, but has his doubts about the authenticity of the Wolfpack project. “I’ve met the owner of Toronto (David Argyle),” he said.  “He’s a very passionate guy and he’s a top businessman, and there is some potential, but at the minute I think the jury is wondering about the longevity of it, and how it fits with the Super League competition.”

Much like it fits with the League 1 and Championship competitions, Neil: deeply uncomfortably. And when you peel back the veneer, you’re left with something that’s somehow less enticing.

“On the logistic side of it, as on the strategic side of it, there’s no way they can repeat this year’s championship, without compromising the integrity of the competition,” said Hudgell. “And if weather-wise, climate-wise they can’t play at home for three months, that really is a serious problem that has to be addressed.”

So after two years of smoke and mirrors, has the game finally had its ‘emperor’s new clothes’ moment?
Is the circus that is Toronto Wolfpack about to run out of road? If Neil Hudgell and Super League have their way, it just might.

“I have a real long-standing issue about integrity, compromising integrity, and there are things that compromise integrity of the competition,” Hudgell said. “Fixtures are one, Visas another… there’s a whole range of things that the game needs to tackle on that.”

Maybe we should just be grateful that people with a level of influence in the game  are finally seeing the light. “I don’t want to be downbeat on the Toronto experience,” Said Hudgell, ”… but I do think it hasn’t been given the necessary due diligence, before they were given entry to the competition.”

The full interview with Neil Hudgell is here

Excitement v nervousness
If you thought Hudgell was a lone voice, think again.

Super League Europe Ltd’s new Propagandist Sock-Puppet in Chief™ Robert Elstone revealed in ‘League, Weakly’ that he is ‘nervous’ about Toronto’s potential promotion. Quoted in an article quoting him in a podcast (and quoted by us having listened to said podcast), Elstone said that he’s “… asked for a report on Toronto.”

Indeed, Elstone is a very diligent chap: “I’ve asked for due diligence done to date. I’ve asked for projected future due diligence.”  He also seems very interested in terms: “I’ve asked what the promised terms are in terms of any commercial arrangements and I’ve asked where they sit in terms of minimum standards.”(sic)

He went on: “One of the minimum standards, I think, is playing a home-away season - so I don’t know the answer to that.”

His big concern seems to be the potential longevity of the project v the potential ROI on SLE’s potential investment.

“Toronto is an opportunity (but) really, honestly (they) make me slightly nervous.” he said. “In one sense they can be exciting, but anyone who’s been in the sport a long time knows there isn’t  a great track record in making those expansions stick.”

Elstone v Argyle
Elstone sees Toronto owner David Argyle as key to any real long-term success: “We are ultimately backing the intentions and actions of one individual. His actions to date have been positive. His intentions are great today, but we can’t be certain they are going to be great in five years’ time.”

So is Toronto an expansion too far for a Super League newly obsessed with realising the value of its participants? “We can’t afford to turn our back on anybody in that respect, but it’s clearly very random. (when) You talk about expansion, you would go where there’s a natural footprint of players, participation, audience. There isn’t that, but there’s a guy who’s prepared to invest in making sure that there’s a future there.”

So is Super League rolling out the red carpet in anticipation of a Canadian invasion? “I think we have to proceed with optimism, but with a degree of caution on it.” Hardly a resounding fanfare.

It seems, ultimately, Elstone’s money might be on another runner. “I really like the idea of Toulouse,” he said.