Rugby League would be the loser if the Wolfpack were expelled

BENEDICT RHODES is a League Express reporter based in Toronto. Here he gives his reaction to the news last week about Toronto’s withdrawal from this year’s Super League competition.

Our man in Canada – Benedict Rhodes

Faced with financial hardship as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Toronto Wolfpack were forced to prematurely end their maiden Super League campaign on July 20th, announcing their withdrawal just a few weeks before the season was due to resume.

Many clubs are feeling the financial ramifications of the pandemic, or are worried about them, with another recent example being the decision to call off the Championship and League One seasons. Combining the inability to have crowds at their matches for the immediate future and needing to bring players off furlough was a major cause for concern for a lot of clubs.

Toronto, of course, is no different in being worried about money going forward. They were unable to place players and staff on furlough, and therefore they were required to pay players in full over the past few months, and had a number of other factors that forced them to make this difficult decision, which has become such a major talking points over the past few days.

They don’t receive a portion of the Sky Sports TV deal, aren’t able to receive any of the British government’s £16 million emergency loan, and, like many clubs, they rely on playing home games to bring in a lot of their income.

All of these factors, as well as others, with visa issues causing some of their stars to leave the UK (and their already small squad) among them, and Toronto would have had a painful few months. I think it’s fair to say that, given similar circumstances, any club in the sport would have struggled to stay afloat.

In trying to carry on, the Wolfpack would have dug themselves a financial hole that they may have never been able to climb out of; this was the right decision to make, but it’s the timing of it that has caused so much aggravation.

The last line of Super League’s statement about the club’s withdrawal from the season was grim, with the statement finishing with: “A discussion around the longer term consequences and the future of the Wolfpack in Super League will commence shortly.”

That can mean any number of things, and while they should face some sort of punishment for pulling out at the last minute, some of the things being suggested are nonsensical in my opinion.

Other Super League clubs will have been disappointed by the timing of the Wolfpack’s decision, and understandably so, but there are a worrying number of people, a large percentage of whom are opposing fans, who are calling for relegation to the Championship, sending the club all the way back down to League One, or revoking their license completely. League Express’ Matthew Shaw reported last week that Wolfpack owner David Argyle fears the club will be kicked out of the top-flight in one way or another, and while that sounds like a great thing for naysayers, it would ultimately be detrimental to the sport as a whole.

There is nothing to be gained if the Wolfpack are relegated, or worse, and doing so isn’t the way to go about it. Given the fact that this financial hardship has been brought about by an unprecedented international pandemic, the club should be given another opportunity, especially with promotion and relegation with the Championship being scrapped this season.

The Wolfpack’s meteoric rise saw them fly through the lower divisions, with the exception of a shock defeat to the London Broncos in the 2018 Million Pound Game. They were by far the highest-spending club in each of their first three seasons, and would surely do the same again if they are indeed relegated.

It would be bad for a lot of clubs – particularly the ones on the verge of challenging for promotion – to have a juggernaut placed among them.

With a second Canadian club, Ottawa Aces, due to join League One in 2021, having semi-professional clubs travel across the Atlantic Ocean at least twice in one season would be difficult, and placing them in League One would likely be strongly opposed.

The Wolfpack also wouldn’t be the only party to benefit from them staying in Super League. As they don’t currently take any of the Sky Sports TV money, each of the other eleven clubs split up Toronto’s share. While David Argyle has said that he wants the central distribution money in 2021, keeping the cash boost for the other eleven clubs could be a factor in allowing Toronto to stay in the top flight. If Argyle is willing to compromise and forgo that money, other Super League clubs would have an incentive to let them stay.

But the Wolfpack’s main attraction, and primary purpose, is their ability to grow the game in an entirely new corner of the world. Thousands of people on the North American side of the Atlantic have been exposed to this great game, and in one of the world’s leading sports markets. They’ve paved the way for future expansion into North America, including the Ottawa Aces, who are due to enter League One in 2021, and the proposed team in New York City.

Toronto are ambitious, and it’s the willingness to invest and their determination to succeed that make them crucial to the future of the sport, especially with negotiations for a new TV deal looming. The signing of Sonny Bill Williams ahead of this season is proof of that ambition.
They should receive some sort of penalty, and one option that makes sense would be a points deduction, which has been seen a few times in Super League, most recently in 2016, as Salford Red Devils were punished for a salary cap breach.

Clubs have been deducted between two and six points in the past for various offences, which I think should be in line with how the Wolfpack should be punished. A points deduction would make it clear that what they did was wrong, without having the potentially catastrophic effect of relegation or expulsion.

Hopefully the decision on the club’s future will be made impartially, and with all of the potential outcomes considered. Letting the Wolfpack fail would be a major blow to the future growth of Rugby League, especially given the circumstances around their withdrawal from the season.

No matter what happens, one thing is certain in this unfortunate situation. Rugby League isn’t the winner.