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Wolfpack rue missing home opener originally slated for Saturday in Toronto

TORONTO — This weekend was to have been Sonny Bill Williams' coming-out party in Toronto, with the former All Blacks star slated to make his Canadian debut for the Wolfpack before an expected sellout at Lamport Stadium.

TORONTO — This weekend was to have been Sonny Bill Williams' coming-out party in Toronto, with the former All Blacks star slated to make his Canadian debut for the Wolfpack before an expected sellout at Lamport Stadium.

The transatlantic rugby league team was to host Hull FC on Saturday in the Wolfpack's first-ever home regular-season game in the top-tier Super League.

Wolfpack CEO Bob Hunter said some 500 to 800 travelling supporters from Hull were expected to make the trip, helping fill the stands at the 9,600-capacity venue — not to mention helping fuel the local economy.

Instead the Wolfpack remain in England. The players are scattered in their homes and — like their sport — facing an uncertain future. A resumption of play depends on government and health authorities — and ultimately the COVID-19 virus.

Paycheques, due this weekend, will be smaller than normal. While Super League has yet to announce wage cuts, Toronto coach Brian McDermott says they are inevitable.

"Everybody will be on reduced pay," he said. "To what degree is probably inappropriate to say. We're trying to be as fair as possible within the pay structure. There's clearly some guys who get paid more than others. Hopefully that will be reflected in the levels of cuts.

"We're not on our own. The whole of Super League's doing it, the whole of sport's doing it. The whole world's going through it."

McDermott expects "at least a 40 per cent pay cut ... in some cases 60 or 70 per cent" for players and staff.

As a Canadian-owned entity, the Wolfpack aren't eligible for COVID-19 wage assistance from the British government and Hunter says it seems none of the Canadian programs available will cover the Wolfpack players.

Hunter says the club is investigating whether it might be eligible for loans still being formalized by federal agencies such as Export Development Canada.

"Credit to (majority owner) David Argyle in this instance in that he's standing by the club. To a massive expense to him," said McDermott.

Super League teams play a 29-game season with 14 at home, 14 away and one as part of the so-called Magic Weekend in Newcastle scheduled for late May. Because of the weather conditions in the early part of the season, the Wolfpack play three of their home games at neutral sites in England.

Toronto, which lost its first six Super League games played in England, has already postponed its first three games at Lamport (against Hull, Wigan and St. Helens). The schedule then calls for three away games before a two-game homestand starting June 13 against Castleford Tigers.

Like other sports, rugby league is looking at a variety of scenarios once the green light is given. But Super League is more complicated than most, with teams in England, France and Canada.

"Who knows which country is going to release their restrictions earliest," said Hunter.

The best-case scenario involves rejigging the calendar to play out the whole schedule, possibly starting in early July. Even then, the physical nature of rugby league in a condensed calendar could take a toll on the players, with McDermott suggesting games be shortened to 60 minutes (with four 15-minute quarters) instead of the normal 80 minutes (with two 40-minutes halves) to help avoid injury.

A worst-case scenario — other than shutting down the entire season — would involve a reduced schedule and games without spectators. And it would not make sense for the Wolfpack and their opposition to fly to Canada to play before an empty stadium.

"If we don't get to go to Canada this year, it's massive," said McDermott, who led the team to promotion to the Super League in his first year at the helm in 2019. "It would be a huge disappointment because part of my attraction to the club was the city of Toronto. And I would say that that's everybody's attraction, as well as everything else that we talk about — playing for a good team and representing something different and the growth of the game in another part of the world and all those type of things.

"But I think No. 1 is when people say 'Do you want to come play for a city called Toronto?' everybody says yes. If we can't go there, it's a big deal."

It's a big deal too for Argyle, whose deep pockets were already being tested by not getting a share of the Sky TV revenue — worth some 2.3 million pounds ($4.1 million) per team a season.

The Wolfpack do not get a cut of that under terms of their agreement in reaching the Super League, although they hope that changes if they continue in the top tier next season.

Revenue from the gate and concessions at Lamport are solely needed for the team's bottom line.

Playing before the home fans would also be missed.

"There were brilliant all last year," said McDermott. "We were really looking forward to entertaining them in front of Super League opposition this year."

Toronto hooker/scrum half James Cunningham, currently recovering from hamstring surgery and a possible bout with COVID-19, said he "couldn't wait to get over there."

"It would have been nice for me to mingle with the fans and soak up the atmosphere at the home opener," he added. 

While hoping for the best in terms of home matches, McDermott is realistic.

"I'm not going to turn the key in the door, but it's looking unlikely," he said.


This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 16, 2020.


Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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