or 125 years, rugby league’s greatest strength has perhaps been its instinct for innovation. For a sport that often finds itself in the shadows of its sporting cousins, it has consistently tried to broaden its own horizons.
Never has that been more evident than this year. Catalans Dragons and Toronto Wolfpack play in Super League, Toulouse in the Championship and new teams from Ottawa and New York are due to join the Rugby Football League in 2021. However, as all professional sport plots a route back to normality, league’s most exciting asset could now be perceived as its biggest vulnerability. “This situation will make it difficult for expansionism moving forward – we’ll have to adapt,” says the Toronto chairman, Bob Hunter.
Each expansion club faces its own challenges in the months ahead, but there is one common theme that unites them all: the difficulties surrounding travelling to and from England to play games.
Sonny Bill Williams and his Toronto team-mates are based in England and the plan was to travel to Canada for fortnightly periods to play their home games. Logistically, the Wolfpack have defied their critics and ensured a trans-Atlantic club playing in England can work, but with two-week quarantine periods, travel restrictions and even securing flights all potential obstacles, Toronto and Catalans are facing logistical and economical hardships when Super League restarts.
“We had made some very strong inroads after winning promotion to Super League and then signing Sonny, and we were starting to make some real noise in a city with some huge sporting franchises,” Hunter says. “This is going to set us back. We’ve attracted a lot of new fans but we’re going to have to work hard to get them back.”
Both clubs are planning to make huge sacrifices for the greater good of the competition. For Catalans, the situation is more complex, as professional sport is currently suspended until September in France, meaning the Dragons will have to relocate their entire squad and staff from Perpignan to England.
With early August earmarked for Super League’s return, an additional two-week quarantine means the possibility of months away from families. “We’ve been honest with our players from the get-go and told them this could be for an extended period,” says Catalans’ general manager, Alex Chan, .
“We will do what we can for the good of Super League and we’re already looking at how we may get over to England and how long we stay for. This could be for an extended period, we know that.”
That, just like for Toronto, brings with it financial issues as well as logistical ones. “We’re vulnerable like every club,” Chan says. “Having no home games leaves a big hole financially and it’s something the president is monitoring. Ourselves and Toronto weren’t eligible for the £16m Government loan the sport received, so we’re being hit hard. We’re hoping restrictions can be eased here, but there is a massive financial burden for Catalans to prepare for.”
Toronto had anticipated all 11 of their home games in their debut season in Super League would be 10,000 sell-outs at Lamport Stadium. Without that valuable stream of income, the Wolfpack themselves are facing a precarious future. “It’s depressing, to put it mildly,” says Hunter, while also conceding they may be based to play away from Canada for the remainder of the season.
“I don’t think we’d fly teams into Canada to play in front of an empty stadium, that makes no sense. We’ve looked at some Championship grounds to play our home games in England, but it leaves us with a huge hole in our income. We will do whatever we have to do for the integrity of the competition but it’s going to be at serious cost to the Wolfpack.”
There are also long-term implications for the sport beyond the pandemic. Ottawa were due to enter the sport’s third-tier, League 1, in 2021while a franchise from New York had been granted permission to play in the Challenge Cup next year. With New York one of the worst-hit areas in the world, and travel to North America uncertain, league’s ambitious goal of cracking North America will also undoubtedly be damaged.
“You don’t get a second chance at launching a franchise and if it means we have to delay for 12 months, we’re prepared to do that,” says Ricky Wilby, the man behind the New York bid. “We need to work with the authorities and not jump the gun on anything. The current season may run over, and that could impact on signing players, so we have to consider our options about 2021.”
Some in the sport’s heartlands, where there remains scepticism over expansion, feel this should be the ideal opportunity for league to focus on its existing clubs, rather than new opportunities overseas. “That’s got to be one of the most idiotic statements ever made,” says Eric Perez, the CEO of Ottawa Aces and the founder of Toronto Wolfpack. “Rugby league has to take itself into new places and new territories. If it doesn’t do that, the sport will die.”
Perez insists Ottawa will be ready for 2021, but with next season certain to be delayed, plus Catalans and Toronto effectively becoming de facto English sides for the remainder of this year, those who believe expansion is the key to rugby league’s survival face a nervous wait over the coming months to see how things unfold.