If you are a fan of Rugby League – the game played with 13 a-side – it has been a real rollercoaster ride in Canada the last few years.
It was in 2016 the Toronto Wolfpack launched playing in Super League with most teams in Britain. The team had made it to the top tier, then COVID hit, the finances went south and the team was frankly turfed from the league by the Brit teams. There is an entire column there about how short-sighted the decision was by the league given the huge North American market the Wolfpack was opening 13s too, but that is for another day perhaps.
Toronto breaking into the top tier was huge, a game I watched online at a local burger place when access at home was wonky. It was a sport highlight for sure.
The team bounced from the league was a low point.
In between the Ottawa Aces – I talked to the man behind the team back in June 2020 -- emerged and were planning a similar road to the Wolfpack, which seemed like it would prove folly since it was rather obvious the Brit teams saw little value in accessing the North American market.
And, then out of the smoke of the Wolfpack’s demise, social media began hinting at a big announcement. Since it was scheduled just hours before April Fool’s Day some thought it all a hoax in the making, but it wasn’t.
It was instead a huge announcement for rugby on this continent, in particular for 13s, as the North America Rugby League (ww.narugbyleague.com), launched.
The new league is scheduled to start limited play ‘in a bubble’ within a few weeks with a dozen American franchises.
And there will be a few games in Canada as the Ottawa Aces and the Wolfpack with new backers, were invited to join. Both said yes with them joining for the first full season in 2022.
The NARL was a surprise, even to Gareth Reid, general manager of the Aces.
“There probably was an element of surprise. I certainly was expecting it ... I was very pleasantly surprised. The potential is massive.”
Reid said he definitely feels like rugby is taking root “not just in Canada but across North America.”
So when the NARL called about the Aces joining, Reid said it made perfect sense to sign on to be part of the North American initiative.
The success, in terms of fan support the Wolfpack had, likely helped forge the new league.
“I think that has played a large part in the NARL,” said Reid, adding the Wolfpack were sort of a ‘proof-of-concept’ endeavour for the sport.
In talking to Reid I questioned if the talent pool existed for 14 new teams. He said he sees lots of potential sources of talent, from players already playing league – some of the teams in the NARL have existed for some time – Atlanta Rhinos, Boston 13s, Brooklyn Kings – to those playing union, (15s), to those playing football, adapting to the sport.
Of course league (13s) is played in New Zealand, Britain, Australia and the Pacific Islands and talent from there will be added to teams too – Eddy Pettybourne has already signed with Brooklyn. Pettybourne, who was named in the South Sydney Rabbitohs’) Team of the Decade, has almost 200 professional appearances.
Having pros from countries where they grew up playing league (13s), “will help develop Canadian talent long term,” noted Reid.
In fact, before the first game has been played talk of Canadian expansion is taking place.
“I would certainly expect some growth up here in rugby league,” said Reid. “... Vancouver is an obvious choice for me.”
While British Columbia has long been a rugby hotbed in Canada, NARL teams in Montreal and the Maritimes (Halifax), have been rumoured too.
“Montreal and Halifax have long-standing rugby traditions as well,” said Reid.
When expansion might occur is unknown, but for Reid the job right now is creating a roster, mostly Canadians, to play a ‘Canada Cup Series’ against Toronto, with an eye to creating a domestic foundation to the team for 2022.
Long term it will be about growing the game.
“We need to have more people engaged in the game,” said Reid, the NARL being a huge step forward in that regard.