With Toronto Wolfpack about to make their Super League debut in Sunday’s sold-out double header at Emerald Headingley, MARTYN SADLER talks to Wolfpack coach Brian McDermott about his side’s prospects for the new season
IN 2019 Toronto Wolfpack dominated the Betfred Championship competition in much the same way that St Helens dominated Super League.
They lost only one game, against Toulouse Olympique in France, and their biggest problem was in ensuring that they didn’t slip on the banana skin of the play-offs at the end of the season to secure promotion.
In the event they despatched Toulouse at the Lamport Stadium in the second week of the play-offs, before seeing off a spirited Featherstone Rovers 24-6 to secure their place in Super League a year after their disappointing defeat to London Broncos at the same stage of the competition.
The Wolfpack had faced Featherstone in front of their biggest ever crowd, with the gates locked at the Lamport, and the anticipation of their entry into Super League was enhanced by their pursuit and eventual signing of global superstar Sonny Bill Williams whose prized signature has opened up enormous commercial opportunities for a club that is still in its infancy.
Inevitably they won’t find things as easy in Super League, but their coach Brian McDermott, who won four Grand Finals, two Challenge Cups and a World Club Challenge title while coaching Leeds Rhinos between 2011 and 2018, is under no illusions about the size of the task facing his club, while not being afraid to set his sights high.
“For sure there is a goal out there, long term or mid-term. The ultimate goal is to win a Grand Final and maybe a Challenge Cup Final. That is our goal, and if it weren’t our goal we would have to ask what we are doing in the competition,” he explains.
“But every goal needs a plan and a strategy behind it and our broad strategy is to be a competitive Super League team first. We want to get used to the competition and be able to trade punches with opposing teams, staying in there for round after round after round, while getting a feel for the competition, the season, the rules and regulations and the way the games are refereed and played.
“So being a competitive team, which we have a real chance of being each week, is our immediate goal.”
But how hard will it be to adjust to a higher level of competition, following two years in the Championship?
“Don’t denigrate the Championship,” says McDermott.
“The recent history of Challenge Cup fixtures demonstrates that Championship clubs usually push Super League clubs. Every single week we faced the best of every opposition. There were a couple of games with blowout scores, but it was an incredible achievement by the players to only lose one game.
“This year we are in a stiffer competition and we won’t be losing only one game. The challenge for us is to lose games this year with humility and to keep control of ourselves when we lose games, simply because we are not used to that level just yet and we are not used to the style of play we’ll encounter.”
The Wolfpack will not play in Toronto until Round 11 of the competition, when they will play their first game at Lamport Stadium against Hull FC on 18 April. Prior to that they will have played their first three home loop fixtures, against Castleford Tigers, St Helens and Wakefield Trinity in Leeds, Warrington and York respectively. Wolfpack supporters will be hoping that when they eventually welcome their team back to Canada, they won’t be trailing the other Super League clubs.
“For sure, but the dynamic is that it’s not always minus twenty degrees in Toronto in December and January, but it sometimes is, so we can’t plan to play games there. So the decision has been made that we spend the first ten weeks in England, play a number of games here and then we start that process of going to Toronto through the year. That is the reality of it.
“Being on the road a lot can be good for you as well, in terms of players spending a lot of time with each other.”
Of course the key recruit is Sonny Bill Williams. How does McDermott see his role at Toronto?
“My view is that the SBW effect won’t happen until the final third of the year, and he understands that,” says McDermott.
“The level of humility he has for someone with his profile is humbling. Everyone likes him and wants to be part of him, and he has said he wants to understand our style, to defend the way we defend and to attack the way we attack first, to get that into his game before then adding his stuff. All of that was instead of him egotistically saying, ‘let me tell you what I’m good at’, and trying to do it from Round 1. You would only trip yourself up with that mentality.”
Does that mean that Sonny Bill might feature on the bench initially?
“That’s an option and it’s something we’d look at,” responds McDermott.
“Everybody wants a piece of Sonny, but my job is to keep his powder dry. We don’t want every game plan to be centred around him and every build up to a game to be centred around him. For the first third of the year he should fly under the radar in terms of how we play and how much we rely on him.
“Of course I am hoping that my hand is forced, because he makes that impact himself.”
But Sonny Bill isn’t the only new recruit for the Wolfpack. The club swooped to sign experienced forward Brad Singleton, 27, who made his Super League debut for Leeds under McDermott in 2011, as well as James Cunningham from London Broncos.
“He is young enough, and he has a top game in him, although it certainly wasn’t there for the final 18 months of his contract at Leeds,” argues McDermott.
“But I knew he could get there again.
“Leeds went through a dip, but nothing really went wrong, despite what some people say. It was just that there was a group of coaches and players who achieved great things, but then it stopped.
“Brad was part of that, and I knew he could reach those heights again as an individual player. He has a very specific game, which is largely based on supporting other players, which is a workmanlike sort of game.
“James Cunningham is someone I’ve always noticed from the time he was at Hull and then went down to London. Whenever we played London he was always prominent. He will be a dark horse for us this year. I think he’s a dummy-half or loose forward, a bit like Bob Beswick was when he played for us. He can cover various positions.”
The key factor for the Wolfpack, however, is their ability to avoid a heavy injury toll this year. As things stand they have spent up to the salary cap limit and would be unable to recruit any reinforcements in the event of an injury crisis.
“We can’t because we are spent up. This is not a whinge. I mentioned something after the game at Castleford and some of the reports said that I was moaning. The club isn’t asking for any favours, but we are abiding by operational rules that suit UK clubs. And if we get injuries we don’t have a reserves or Academy squad that we can rely upon,” says McDermott.
“The reality is that if 30 per cent of my squad are injured all year, then we will get relegated. That’s the truth.
“When I put my coaching hat on, I’ll try my best to ensure that won’t happen, although I’m being pragmatic. But that is the norm, with four or five blokes not being able to take to the field during the year. We can’t bring anyone in. We can’t get a loan player, because even if you’re not paying him, the value of his wages goes on your salary cap. So even if another club were to contribute a player to us and keep on paying him, that salary would go onto our cap.
“Isn’t that scary!
“The growth of the game in Toronto will be slow and arduous if we are battling relegation every season. Not because we are a poor team that is poorly coached, but because we get injuries that we can’t cope with.
“Super League has to take a step back and ask itself whether it wants Toronto in the league. The follow up question is, why do you want Toronto in the league? If the answer is that we just want to see how they go, then that is ridiculous. In that case they may go out of the league in a couple of years, because it would be unsustainable. You need Toronto in the league to achieve the bigger picture, which is the expansion of Rugby League.”
2020 Squad: 1 Gareth O’Brien, 2 Matty Russell, 3 Chase Stanley, 4 Ricky Leutele, 5 Liam Kay, 6 Joe Mellor, 7 Josh McCrone, 8 Adam Sidlow, 9 Andy Ackers, 10 Anthony Mullally, 11 Andrew Dixon, 12 Bodene Thompson, 13 Jon Wilkin, 14 Darcy Lussick, 15 Gadwin Springer, 16 Tom Olbison, 17 Blake Wallace, 18 Brad Singleton, 19 Gary Wheeler, 20 James Cunningham, 21 Sonny Bill Williams, 22 Greg Worthington, 23 Hakim Miloudi.
INS: Brad Singleton (Leeds Rhinos), James Cunningham (London Broncos), Sonny Bill Williams (Auckland Blues RUFC)
OUTS: Bob Beswick (Newcastle Thunder), Ryan Brierley (Hull Kingston Rovers), Adam Higson (Leigh Centurions), Nick Rawsthorne (Hull Kingston Rovers), Ashton Sims (retired), Greg Worthington (Featherstone Rovers – nine-match loan).
19 January: Castleford Tigers 10 Toronto Wolfpack 16
Director of Rugby: Brian Noble
Head Coach: Brian McDermott
Assistant Coach: Chris Plume
Assistant Coach: Kurt Haggerty
Strength and Conditioning Coach: John Kelly
Player Welfare and Logistics Manager: Rich Whiting
Head of Physiotherapy: Jonny Skinner
Sport Rehabilitator: Cameron Taylor
Home Kit: White with blue and red bands
Away Kit: Hooped black and white