When you ask Paul Rowley, the second-year head coach of the Toronto Wolfpack, about the success of the team's inaugural 2017 season, he's about as matter of fact as you can be, in his Northern English accent.
"Year 1 was good to give everyone a taste of [success], not stress out too much about the results," Rowley told B/R. "It was a nice, gentle way to ease into [the league], but I think 2018 will be a different experience altogether."
What the rugged player-turned-coach is referring to is the coming season the Wolfpack are going to face as the newest team in the Championship League of the Rugby Football League. A year after winning the RFL's third-tier League 1 title, they were moved up a level to a new division, where they'll face harder hits, faster opponents and tougher competition.
Oh, did we mention that the Toronto Wolfpack play in a rugby league in the UK?
The Wolfpack are the only transatlantic professional sports team. In a world with an NBA commissioner who dreams of having four teams based in Europe and an NFL that plays four games in London and is laying groundwork for a permanent team there, the Wolfpack are a case study for leagues looking to go multi-continental.
The brainchild of Canadian businessman Eric Perez, the Wolfpack have gone from nothing to something in the span of one season. Based out of Toronto, the team has a travel schedule that routinely takes them to games in Whitehaven, Doncaster and Workington, England. And despite some logistical issues that any other sports team may have, and one or two that most may not, the Wolfpack have been nothing short of incredible in their only year of existence.
"From where we are now to where we've come from, we've certainly jumped from the frying pan into the fire," Rowley says about the move up to the second division. "The top-end teams of the Championship League and the bottom end of the Super League aren't too dissimilar. The environment that we're going into now is a tough one with talented and established rugby league players. We sink or swim now."
To get here, though, has been no easy task.
"When we started recruiting (to the Wolfpack before the season), it was a hard sell because no one knew anything about it; it was like it was from Mars," Rowley says. "Year 1 was a leap of faith. There's an element of risk to it, and nothing sounds real about it."
And it's easy to see how daunting it would be to sign on with a rugby team based in a North American city better known for having an Original Six hockey team and being Drake's hometown. Still, the city possesses a deeply rooted sports history, and building a team from the ground up was a strong pull.
"I've always wanted to play professional rugby, and this was a great opportunity," Australian halfback Blake Wallace recounts after a preseason workout. "Being able to bring a sport that I've grown up with and love to a place where it's relatively new, and being able to grow the game in a different country, were big reasons (to come)."
As a condition of their acceptance as an expansion franchise, the Wolfpack started in the bottom tier of the RFL, which was primarily made up of semi-pro clubs. The Wolfpack were the only full-time team in League 1, and the difference showed: Through 22 regular-season games, they were 20-1-1, remaining undefeated until the end of the year. They posted a staggering 921-point differential, which was nine points more than the next four teams in the standings combined. In short, they dominated.
Come March, when the new season begins, those blowouts the Wolfpack once enjoyed are likely to be nothing but memories.
That the Wolfpack are in this position in so short a time is impressive, especially considering the logistical headaches that come from playing in a league based an ocean away.
The distance from Toronto to Manchester, where the Wolfpack is in preseason training, is 5,491 km, or 3,412 miles. To put that in perspective, the distance from New York to Los Angeles is 2,809 kilometers, or 1,745 miles, with a flight. Traveling these distances are just not economically feasible, let alone good for an athlete's body.
To ease the burden, Toronto plays home and away games in four-week periods. The Wolfpack have become monthly sojourners, if you will, out of necessity.
While in England, they are based out of Manchester, where they now have a partnership with the city to use the Carrington Training Centre, formerly the training home of Manchester City FC. From there, the Wolfpack travel to their "road" games locally, an arrangement that allows the team's UK players time with families they are apart from while in Canada.
At "home" in Toronto, the club stays in a college dorm they are able to use as temporary housing for the entirety of the four-week homestand.
There is another side of the travel coin—the opposition needs to come to Toronto. As a condition of their league agreement, the team fronts the travel for opposing teams in both League 1 and the Championship League. Through an airline partnership, the Wolfpack has upward of 700 yearly flights allotted on their sponsor's flight service, of which about half is designated for the opposition to travel from England to Toronto. That boils down to between 35 to 45 personnel coming in per team over four games in a four-week period.
Though having two fronts on two different continents presents pricey obstacles for a budding professional sports team, the Wolfpack have embraced the situation, working to attract sponsors with the promise of exposure on two sides of the Atlantic.
The constant travel makes for a bubble of camaraderie and a shared sense of focus. To Rowley, the players couldn't be anything but professionals in how they conducted themselves because of the situation they were collectively in. It also has helped the team bond off the field. Being happily stuck with each other is a good way to describe how they managed to jell in their home away from home.
Looking as far ahead as they allow themselves, the Wolfpack is heading toward the season's February start with 22 returning players from last year's roster. Rowley, a burly figure with an easy demeanor, values allowing the players freedom on the field to be creative. Run-and-gun might be the best way to describe the Wolfpack attack, and though it doesn't fit in the sometimes-rigid structure other rugby teams employ, the players have become comfortable in it and its allowances within the game. The more free-flowing approach undoubtedly helped make Toronto one of the league's most prolific offenses as well as empowered players to make plays, which is what Rowley wants.
All of that will be tested in the season ahead as they make the jump to the Championship League. And while every team sets goals for itself to start the season, Toronto has been relatively mum on what it hopes to accomplish in Year 2, though it knows it will be seen as easy pickings as the new team in town.
"I'm sure that teams we face (this year) are going to want to beat us, and we'll have to be ready for that challenge," Wallace says. "I don't think there's (necessarily) a target on us. We're going to be going into games where the opposition wants to beat you, simple as that. That's competitive sports. They'll want to win and we'll want to win. We've had some success and we're excited to build on it and see how far this team can go."
Here's to going the distance. Again and again.