The Qualifiers are upon us, and for Toronto Wolfpack, it’s a chance for them to vindicate the hype.
For their head coach, Paul Rowley, the Qualifiers is an opportunity for him to silence his critics. His last experience of the middles 8s was a bitter disappointment, with his Leigh side finishing bottom of the competition.
Rowley isn’t the type of coach that will have that sort of mindset, in fact, you can expect him to keep as low a profile as possible throughout their campaign.
But internally, he faces a huge selection dilemma, centred around his halfbacks.
In Josh McCrone, Ryan Brierley and Blake Wallace, Toronto have three top quality playmakers that would all feature in the majority of teams they will play against over the next two months. However, one of them is going to miss out.
There’s little doubting that at the start of the year Toronto’s first choice partnership was McCrone and Brierley. The pair played together in the vast majority of games in the UK, and even when Blake Wallace impressed, he was still moved out of the halves when the pair were fit.
But the second half of the season saw Wallace become the lynchpin in the Wolfpack team. With McCrone given a rest, Wallace enjoyed a stunning stint in Canada, with his running qualities carving defences up at will. He’s scored 15 tries in just 17 appearances this year and bagged two hat-tricks last month.
So now, perhaps for the first time this season given the ongoing injury problems they’ve had, Rowley and his coaching staff have a real selection headache on their hands.
All three have their merits and bring a different dynamic to the team that makes them hard to drop. McCrone is the Wolfpack captain after arriving as one of their big-name acquisitions ahead of their push for Super League. To not select him would be a bold call indeed.
As for Brierley, he has a proven track record and has performed at this level in the past. His display for Huddersfield back in 2016 when they defeated Hull KR practically kept the Giants up. This year has seen him be the mainstay in the halves, and his game has evolved as the year has developed.
Then there is Wallace, whose form has made it incredibly difficult to drop him. While he’s not played at the top level before, his performances have been so good that dropping him would also have to be considered a gamble.
Rowley probably doesn’t even have the luxury of moving one of them elsewhere. McCrone, who can play at hooker, would then be competing for a place in the side with Bob Beswick and Andy Ackers, who bring a lot to the Wolfpack. Meanwhile, both Brierley and Wallace have played fullback, but they’re not going to drop Gareth O’Brien.
Having such a wealth of quality isn’t a bad thing for the Wolfpack and it’s a headache the coaching staff would most certainly prefer to have, but with it comes with its challenges.
Halifax are their first opponents, and Toronto’s ex-Leigh contingent will be very well aware of what happened when they faced Fax in the Qualifiers back in 2015. The first game of the Qualifiers is massive for every team, it can drastically change your outlook on the competition. The same applies for Toronto. Victory over the part-timers would put them on the front foot heading into their first home game with Hull KR and see the pressure lifted massively. Defeat, and they’re under pressure to get a result.
Sunday’s teamsheet will be interesting reading indeed.