Esquire (UK) - - Esquire Sport 2017 -

It’s a hot, dry Septem­ber af­ter­noon in Lib­erty Vil­lage, a neigh­bour­hood in south-west Toronto, and a dozen or so men form a cir­cle on a play­ing field. They are all, with­out ex­cep­tion, large. Some look like ath­letes, with pro­nounced pecs and bandy legs, while oth­ers are just big blokes in shorts, the kind of loom­ing, slightly doughy units you bounce off in five-a-side foot­ball. They’re drenched in sweat and ev­ery one has that help­less, glassy-eyed ex­pres­sion you only see in peo­ple very near ex­haus­tion. They are all au­di­bly North Amer­i­can but are be­ing or­dered about by gruff, flat-vow­elled coaches who sound like they could be from any num­ber of places along the M62 cor­ri­dor: Brad­ford; Hal­i­fax; Leigh. These coaches make the men per­form a fit­ness drill known as “scrolling”, a hor­ri­ble process in­volv­ing sprint­ing on the spot then drop­ping to the floor and get­ting back up, drop­ping and get­ting back up, drop­ping and get­ting back up. When you’re big and al­ready knack­ered, this is very hard. Some can­not cope. A man with dread­locks falls on one knee, spent. Oth­ers do their best to gee-up the group, pant­ing en­cour­age­ments while the coaches watch in si­lence. “Why you here?” bel­lows one man des­per­ately, as he drops to the floor then drags him­self up again. “Why you here, fel­las?”

It’s a good ques­tion. Why are they here? In one sense, the an­swer is straight­for­ward. These men — for­mer col­lege foot­ball lineback­ers, ama­teur rugby union en­thu­si­asts, mis­cel­la­neous sporty types with a pair of boots and a free Satur­day af­ter­noon — have all re­sponded to an ad an­nounc­ing open try­outs for a new pro­fes­sional rugby league team, the Toronto Wolf­pack. The more ro­man­tic an­swer, how­ever, is they want to make his­tory. The Wolf­pack are based in Toronto, where they play their home games, but com­pete in a Bri­tish league against Bri­tish teams. It was con­ceived to be — and is in fact — the world’s first transat­lantic pro­fes­sional sports fran­chise.

While “transat­lantic pro­fes­sional sports fran­chise” might sound glam­orous, the Wolf­pack are spend­ing their in­au­gu­ral sea­son com­pet­ing not in the Su­per League — Bri­tish rugby league’s top flight, home to blue-chip sides like Leeds Rhi­nos, War­ring­ton Wolves and St He­lens — but down in the third tier of our do­mes­tic com­pe­ti­tion, the King­stone Press League One. Their op­po­nents in­clude York City Knights, Hemel Stags and South Wales Iron­men: barely semi-pro out­fits with home crowds in the low hun­dreds, where the cheer­lead­ers are pri­mary school kids high on Haribo and the club­house bar is staffed by peo­ple di­rectly re­lated to the play­ers. It’s not the Dal­las Cow­boys com­ing to Wem­b­ley.

The se­cond thing to un­der­stand is that in Canada rugby league is al­most un­known. The Canadian Rugby League Fed­er­a­tion, which over­saw the coun­try’s ama­teur game and na­tional side, folded in 2000. No­body re­ally seemed to no­tice. Ice hockey? Lacrosse? Base­ball? Rugby union? Foot­ball? Curl­ing? Cana­di­ans play these sports and loads more. Canada even has a com­pet­i­tive, trans-na­tional Quid­ditch cham­pi­onship. But there is no equiv­a­lent for rugby league. Part of the rea­son the Wolf­pack now have to schlep to places like White­haven and Work­ing­ton is that they are some of the near­est clubs able to give them a proper game. And they’re in Cum­bria.

If you’re feel­ing gen­er­ous, you might say a pro­fes­sional rugby league team, spun from thin air, based in a sport-sat­u­rated coun­try which doesn’t care about rugby league, which will play in a scrappy com­pe­ti­tion over 3,500 miles and five time zones away, is a very am­bi­tious propo­si­tion. If you’re not, it just sounds like a re­ally ter­ri­ble idea. And if your ini­tial re­ac­tion is the lat­ter, then you are not alone. “When I read about it in the pa­pers, I im­me­di­ately thought ‘That’s a stupid idea, that will never work,’” says Bob Beswick, the for­mer Wi­gan War­riors, Widnes Vik­ings and Leigh Cen­tu­ri­ons hooker. Rhys Jacks was play­ing at scrum-half for Sh­effield Ea­gles when he heard. “I thought there was no way that could hap­pen,” he says, shak­ing his head. “No way.” Brian Noble, who man­aged the Brad­ford Bulls to three Su­per League ti­tles and coached Wi­gan War­riors and Great Bri­tain, re­mem­bers a friend tip­ping him off about the pro­posed Toronto fran­chise. “I didn’t know if he was be­ing se­ri­ous,” he says. “I wasn’t sure if it was a wind-up.” And yet, within a few months, all these men agreed to join the Wolf­pack, with Beswick and Jacks sign­ing play­ing con­tracts and Noble ap­pointed as the club’s di­rec­tor of rugby.

The man who per­suaded them — with­out whom the Wolf­pack would not ex­ist — is its CEO Eric Perez, a fortysome­thing for­mer ad­ver­tis­ing ex­ec­u­tive from Toronto. He’s stout, with a shaven head and stub­ble, and likes to wear horn-rimmed glasses, base­ball caps and Black Sab­bath T-shirts. His dog is called Bowie. He looks like he should be a start-up CEO, or an an­gel in­vestor, or a pop man­ager. But no. He runs a rugby league club, an am­bi­tion he fos­tered for years. “I had a plan. No­body un­der­stood what I was do­ing,” he says. “No­body be­lieved it could hap­pen. But I was de­ter­mined, al­most re­lent­lessly, to make it hap­pen. Some­how I did.”

How did one slightly nerdy Canadian de­velop an all-con­sum­ing ob­ses­sion with a sport that barely ex­isted in his home coun­try? It was, he says, a sim­ple twist of fate. In the early 2000s, his girl­friend lived in Gi­bral­tar so he went to stay with her. “Ev­ery­one in Gi­bral­tar had il­le­gal Sky Boxes,” he says. One day, he flicked on the TV and there was a rugby game

on. Only, not like the rugby he had grown up play­ing in Canada. “I re­mem­ber think­ing, what is this? The pace of it. The speed. The lack of dead ball sit­u­a­tions. The game, it just goes and goes. I was just blown away by it. It was Leeds [Rhi­nos] against Brad­ford [Bulls] and there was a big brawl, which never hurts,” he says, grin­ning. “We like a nice brawl.”

At the fi­nal whis­tle, he switched off the TV feel­ing stunned. Why had no­body ever told him about this in­cred­i­ble game? He be­gan to do some re­search and dis­cov­ered Canada was “prob­a­bly the most sig­nif­i­cant Com­mon­wealth realm that didn’t play rugby league”. He dug into the his­tory and found out about the bit­ter schism with rugby union, pro­fes­sion­al­ism ver­sus am­a­teurism, work­ing class ver­sus pub­lic school, north ver­sus south, decades and decades of his­tor­i­cal en­mity and an­tag­o­nism be­tween the two codes and the con­fine­ment of the league to its York­shire and Lan­cashire heart­lands. If you’re Bri­tish and fol­low ei­ther form of rugby — but par­tic­u­larly rugby league — this his­tory weighs heavy. But Perez is not Bri­tish. And it all just left him scratch­ing his head. “When I re­searched the whole so­cio-eco­nomic dy­namic and the class di­vide from the turn of the last cen­tury in Eng­land, I just thought… we don’t care about any of that. Most peo­ple that come to Canada come to get away from those kinds of things.”

Over the in­ter­ven­ing years, Perez led what was at times a one-man cru­sade to make Canada care about this game. “It’s the most Canadian sport that never was,” he says. “Be­cause our men­tal­ity is hard work­ing and never-say­die. We like to get stuck in but we also like to have skill in ev­ery­thing we do, which is ex­actly what rugby league is about. It’s like old-time hockey. It’s raw. It’s grass­roots. It’s real and played by guys you can re­late to.”

In 2010, he founded Canada Rugby League to re­place the Canadian Rugby League Fed­er­a­tion. He re-es­tab­lished the Canadian na­tional team and ar­ranged fix­tures against the USA. If you’re go­ing to have a na­tional team, you’re go­ing to need play­ers. And if you want play­ers, you’re go­ing to need teams for them to play for. So Perez, plough­ing ev­ery dol­lar of his own into the project, set about cre­at­ing a hand­ful of ama­teur rugby league clubs in the On­tario re­gion, mak­ing what con­nec­tions he could and call­ing in favours. Perez con­tacted the CEO of Leigh Cen­tu­ri­ons: “And he said, ‘Hey, if you can come and pick them up, we have a full set of old kit you can have.’” Ta-da! Say hello to the Toronto Cen­tu­ri­ons. Like­wise, Saint He­lens told him that, sure, he could have their old tops, which is how the Toronto City Saints came into be­ing. Same deal with the Sal­ford Red Devils and the York Re­gion Reds. It wasn’t quite Su­per League — it wasn’t even King­stone Press League One — but it was some­thing.

Slowly, play­ers came. And so, in dribs and drabs, did fans. Perez mar­keted rugby league as gritty, un­der­ground and ac­tu­ally kind of cool. Within a few years, the na­tional side was at­tract­ing crowds of 7,000 or so at Toronto’s Lam­port Sta­dium, a com­pact venue near the shore of Lake On­tario. By force of Perez’s will alone — plus some se­cond-hand jer­seys — peo­ple were now play­ing and watch­ing rugby league in Canada. But Perez wanted some­thing more — a Canadian club, sup­ported by thou­sands of fans, that would one day play in the Su­per League. In fact, deep down, he wanted some­thing even big­ger than that. He wanted the whole of North Amer­ica to feel the same way about rugby league as he did.

On YouTube you can find a 1969 TV pro­gramme called The Game that Got Away. It’s about rugby league, nar­rated by a well-spo­ken BBC type and pre­sented as a kind of so­ci­o­log­i­cal sur­vey meets sports doc­u­men­tary. And even though it’s al­most half a cen­tury old, it’s as good a place as any to start when try­ing to un­der­stand the psy­che of the sport (which is in it­self prob­a­bly telling). What the film does, ten­derly and with some hu­mour, is pro­vide a por­trait of a game marked by in­tense pride but also by para­noia and pes­simism. It is, we learn, a sport hemmed in ge­o­graph­i­cally and den­i­grated for the sin of poach­ing ama­teur rugby union play­ers; a sport whose sup­port­ers re­fer to it as “the great­est game”, but who main­tain it has never been treated with the re­spect it de­serves. In 1969, we are told, the com­bined match-day crowds at all top level rugby league clubs would fit into Old Traf­ford.

To­day, not a lot has re­ally changed. Su­per League at­ten­dances last sea­son were down, with an av­er­age gate of 8,810. “You used to be able to shout down a pit in Feather­stone and 27 rugby league play­ers would come up,” says Brian Noble. Now the player pool is di­min­ish­ing, and top tal­ent runs the risk of be­ing cherry-picked ei­ther by the Na­tional Rugby League in Aus­tralia or, even more gallingly, by rugby union. “We still have peo­ple in the game who are on 15 grand a year for play­ing in the first team,” says Noble. “Given what they put their bod­ies through and the en­ter­tain­ment they pro­vide, it’s bonkers.” The con­stant anx­i­ety is that as fans die or drift away, UK rugby league will spin in ever-de­creas­ing cir­cles un­til it one day finds it­self a gen­uine mi­nor­ity sport. A cul­tural relic. A cu­rios­ity.

The cen­tral prob­lem for rugby league in Bri­tain is it has never been able to ex­pand se­ri­ously. Of the 10 largest UK cities, only Leeds claims a top-flight team. None of this is news to Noble. “You go south of Not­ting­ham and you won’t see any rugby league. South of Sh­effield even. You won’t see rugby league in the schools. It has never man­aged to break out of

its north­ern cor­ri­dor in the UK. We need a new mar­ket,” he says. “We need more play­ers.”

The plan is that the Wolf­pack, based in a city of just un­der three mil­lion peo­ple (“10m within an hour’s travel,” says Perez, more than once), will pro­vide Bri­tish rugby league with both. And money. Po­ten­tially, very se­ri­ous money. If the team can get into Su­per League then Su­per League can get into North Amer­ica. The broad­cast­ing rights would be ex­tremely lu­cra­tive (“pretty much dou­ble what they are now”, Noble be­lieves) and this cash would then flow into the cof­fers of ev­ery Su­per League club.

But first, the Wolf­pack has to find fans. This is not a given. Clubs like Ox­ford RLFC, Hemel Stags, Coven­try Bears, Univer­sity of Glouces­ter­shire All Golds, the South Wales Iron­men, the London Bron­cos all ex­ist — some cre­ated with the fi­nan­cial back­ing of the Rugby Foot­ball League — but it’s hard to shake the sense they’re not much more than hope­ful colonies, limp­ing along, es­tab­lished by a squeezed moth­er­land. Failed clubs haunt the sport’s his­tory like so many Roanokes: Paris Saint-Ger­main? Celtic Cru­saders? Not­ting­ham City? Gone. Grown over. For­got­ten. And this isn’t even a new thing. My great-grand­fa­ther was a miner who played rugby union for Wales. He was of­fered money to play league in London by a busi­ness­man who, dur­ing the mid-Thir­ties, at­tempted to es­tab­lish two clubs in the cap­i­tal: Ac­ton and Willes­den RLFC, and Streatham and Mitcham RLFC. Be­cause play­ing rugby for money is bet­ter than play­ing rugby for free and work­ing down a mine, my great-grand­fa­ther said “yes please”. He played one sea­son for each club be­fore they both duly folded, and so ended up fol­low­ing the tried and true path North and sign­ing for Leeds. He played for a decade, then set­tled and raised a fam­ily there. If the peo­ple of Ac­ton, Willes­den, Streatham and Mitcham had been more into rugby league then I, quite lit­er­ally, would not be here now. Ev­ery cloud, I sup­pose. In Keigh­ley, how­ever, the peo­ple are very much into rugby league. On a bright Sun­day af­ter­noon in late March, 1,200 come to Cougar Park (home of the Keigh­ley Cougars) to watch their team play the Toronto Wolf­pack. In the nine months since the open try­outs for the Wolf­pack, a team has been as­sem­bled. In truth, the try­outs — also held in other US cities and even Kingston, Ja­maica — were partly a pub­lic­ity move. Perez de­vel­oped an X-Fac­tor-style re­al­ity show, Last Tackle, which fol­lowed the for­tunes of hope­fuls try­ing to win a con­tract with the club. There are cur­rently two Cana­di­ans in the squad and an Amer­i­can. There’s also a healthy smat­ter­ing of for­mer Su­per League tal­ent plus, in pride of place, for­mer New Zealand in­ter­na­tional and NRL vet­eran Fui­fui Moimoi, a charis­matic and el­e­men­tal prop, even ap­proach­ing 38.

This kind of re­cruit­ment pol­icy takes money. The Wolf­pack are backed by a con­sor­tium of 10 busi­ness­men led by Perez. The club has pledged to cover op­po­nents’ travel and ac­com­mo­da­tion for the next few sea­sons. The clear in­ten­tion is not to hang around in the third tier but to win the two pro­mo­tions re­quired to make the Su­per League. Not ev­ery rugby league fan is happy about this. As the game kicked off, a Keigh­ley fan, pint in hand, di­rected abuse at the Wolf­pack bench. He was re­lent­less. “Need more money, Toronto?” he shouted when they mis­placed a pass. He heck­led play­ers who came off dur­ing in­ter­changes. “Come on! You must be able to do more than 20 min­utes! You’re a Su­per League player!” The way he sneered “Su­per League player” made it sound like the worst thing a man can be. Af­ter the Wolf­pack scored a se­cond try in an evenly matched first half, his mood dark­ened. “Ab­so­lute joke,” he mut­tered. “They shouldn’t even be here. Piss off back to Canada.”

That fan seemed to be an ex­cep­tion. At half-time, I wan­dered the ground. It was only the Wolf­pack’s fourth com­pet­i­tive game but there were al­ready two dozen peo­ple in Wolf­pack replica kits. At this point, the Wolf­pack were yet to play a home game — their fix­tures are ar­ranged in man­age­able blocks of away then home fix­tures — but a nascent fan cul­ture was emerg­ing. When they scored that se­cond try against Keigh­ley, one mid­dle-aged man on the far side of the stand let out a long wolf howl, “Awoooooooo!” be­fore chuck­ling a lit­tle self-con­sciously. An­other man had draped a Maple Leaf flag over the touch­line rail­ing. His name was Adam Perry and he was that rare thing, a London-born, London-based rugby league fan. He’d come up for this game and said the whole premise of the Wolf­pack was so far-fetched he couldn’t re­sist.

“It’s just a bit ab­surd and that’s partly what at­tracts me to them. It’s one of the most au­da­cious sport­ing projects there has ever been,” he said brightly. “In London, the sport is dy­ing. At London Bron­cos, we get 700 peo­ple a game. But the Wolf­pack al­ready have over 6,000 sea­son ticket hold­ers [at press time it is up­wards of 7,000]. So which is the up­com­ing mar­ket and which isn’t?”

A woman in a Wolf­pack jer­sey walked past. “Ex­cuse me,” I said, “stupid ques­tion but, are you a Toronto Wolf­pack fan?” Her name was Kerry-Anne Daniels and tech­ni­cally she is a War­ring­ton Wolves fan but has fam­ily con­nec­tions to Toronto so can’t see a prob­lem sup­port­ing both sides. “You’re al­lowed a se­cond team. We’d rather see the sport get a wider au­di­ence than die, so it’s a pos­i­tive for

the game,” she said. Speak­ing to rugby league fans or read­ing com­ments on­line, this at­ti­tude ap­pears preva­lent. Root­ing for the Wolf­pack is root­ing for the greater good of the sport. “It’s go­ing to be fan­tas­tic for the game,” added Daniels. “More money and fresh blood from North Amer­ica and Canada.”

That in­cludes Ryan Bur­roughs, a ver­sa­tile 25-year-old from Vir­ginia who can play across the Wolf­pack’s back line. Bur­roughs had been a wide re­ceiver for his high school foot­ball [grid­iron] team and then, three years ago, af­ter a stint in the army, a friend in­tro­duced him to rugby union. “I played it and loved it,” he says. Af­ter the team he was play­ing for lost in the play-offs, he found him­self at a loose end. “But my friend said, ‘Don’t worry, there’s a bet­ter ver­sion of rugby they play in the sum­mer called rugby league,’ so I thought I may as well give it a shot.” He turned out for the North­ern Vir­ginia Ea­gles (“and pretty much just started killing it in the USA league”) which won him a place in the na­tional team and a semi-pro con­tract in Aus­tralia. Sign­ing for the Wolf­pack in 2016, he be­came the club’s first try-scorer dur­ing a third round Chal­lenge Cup tie against Sid­dal ARLFC, an ama­teur side from Hal­i­fax. “That’s spe­cial,” he says. “No­body can take that away from me.”

Dur­ing the first months of the sea­son, prior to their first home game at the Lam­port Sta­dium, Bur­roughs and the rest of the Wolf­pack were based in Hud­der­s­field. He had not been to Eng­land be­fore and strug­gled to un­der­stand what his north­ern team­mates were say­ing. “Oh man, the ac­cents,” he says. “It feels like ev­ery per­son has a dif­fer­ent ac­cent. Two of the boys on the team will say they’re from the same place, but they sound to­tally dif­fer­ent. You kind of pick it up. But once in a while some­body will say some­thing and I’ll be like… ‘I have no idea what that means.’” Over the sum­mer the team are in Toronto for home fix­tures, so the cul­ture shock has no doubt been re­versed. Bob Beswick, the Wolf­pack hooker, de­scribes what the transat­lantic criss­cross­ing de­manded of them: over to Canada for a week, back to Hud­der­s­field for a week, over to Canada for three weeks, back to Hud­der­s­field for two weeks, then to Canada for an even longer spell. “It’s crazy and ridicu­lous what we’re about to do,” he says, laugh­ing. “It shouldn’t make any sense. But it’s funny how quickly we’ve all just ac­cepted it.”

In fact, in­creas­ingly, the transat­lantic na­ture of the club is viewed by other play­ers as some­thing of a draw. It helps that they’ve been steam­rol­ler­ing through the di­vi­sion — run­ning Su­per League side Sal­ford City Reds close in the cup, los­ing 29–22 — but there’s also some­thing as­pi­ra­tional about them. Even su­per­fi­cial things. The kit is cool. The brand­ing is slick. There’s craft beer on sale at the ground in Toronto and good-look­ing cheer­lead­ers (“The She-Wolves”, ob­vi­ously). It feels like a North Amer­i­can sports team, ba­si­cally. Which I sup­pose is the point.

“Ev­ery­body was scratch­ing their heads in the early days,” says Noble. “Re­cruit­ment wasn’t easy, you were sell­ing some­thing com­pletely new to kids who prob­a­bly haven’t been out of Dews­bury or Brad­ford or Leeds in their lives. Now, we have peo­ple knock­ing on the door, ring­ing us, want­ing to join.”

By 16 June, the Wolf­pack are un­beaten in the league af­ter 10 matches. Their first home game took place in May, on a cold, wet windy day, when 6,281 fans saw them beat ama­teur UK side Ox­ford 62–12. My great un­cle — son of my rugby-play­ing great-grand­fa­ther — em­i­grated to Toronto from Leeds in the Six­ties. I told him about the Wolf­pack but his re­sponse was pes­simistic. “Cana­di­ans al­ready play lots of other sports,” he said. He didn’t hold out much hope for rugby league. Oh well, I thought, then a few days af­ter the Ox­ford game, he sent me a Toronto Star news­pa­per clip­ping about the match. He said he was go­ing to the next game. He sounded ex­cited.

It’s easy, when you’ve grown up with rugby league, to al­ways as­sume the worst; to walk around un­der a cloud, to suck your teeth and gri­mace. Then you’ll watch a game and it’s the best thing you’ve ever seen and all you want to do is tell peo­ple. It’s a schiz­o­phrenic cy­cle and it wears you down. But the Toronto Wolf­pack might just break that loop.

“There is this self-loathing, self-dep­re­cat­ing at­ti­tude that seems to be preva­lent in the north of Eng­land,” says Perez. “So many of the world’s great in­no­va­tions have come from there, and peo­ple speak quite proudly of them. But at the ba­sic level they will al­ways se­cond-guess them­selves. Rugby league needs the Wolf­pack and for rea­sons that are as much psy­cho­log­i­cal as they are fi­nan­cial. I think peo­ple need to stand up and re­alise this is the great­est game of all. It is,” he says solemnly, “the great­est sport ever.”

He pre­dicts there will be a Mon­treal team play­ing in the UK “within a cou­ple of years”. Then maybe a fran­chise in Bos­ton? How about Dublin? He isn’t just spit­balling. “If I say it’s go­ing to hap­pen, then I prom­ise with all my de­ter­mi­na­tion that it will hap­pen.”

It sounds good, it sounds amaz­ing, but that’s for the fu­ture. Back in Keigh­ley, the Wolf­pack had sealed their win, cut­ting loose in the se­cond half beat­ing the Cougars 48–21. From the main stand, I could see the sun start­ing to set on the York­shire moors. As the play­ers left the pitch, a noise bounced round the ground. Here and there were men, women and chil­dren, heads tilted back and eyes shut tight. “Awoooooooo!” they cried. “Awoooooooo! Awoooooooo! Awoooooooo!”

Eric Perez, founder and CEO of the Toronto Wolf­pack pro­fes­sional rugby league club, the only team to com­pete in the UK in transat­lantic league fix­tures

Aus­tralian-born Rhys Jacks, formerly with UK side Sh­effield Ea­gles, plays

at half back for the Wolf­pack

The only North Amer­i­can-born player in the Wolf­pack, Ryan Bur­roughs is from Vir­ginia. Here, he scores his club’s first try against Sid­dal ARLFC, Hal­i­fax, 25 Fe­bru­ary 2017

Toronto Wolf­pack di­rec­tor

of rugby Brian Noble has cap­tained the Bri­tish na­tional team and Lions and later was

head coach of Great Bri­tain

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