The UK’s Super League was rocked earlier this year with Toronto Wolfpack’s announcement that they would withdraw from the competition. The Wolfpack ownership cited insurmountable financial hurdles related to international travel as a key factor in the decision.
There has been little sympathy for the club and its predicament, despite a number of contracted players have been denied their rightful salaries as a result. Some players have managed to find deals with other clubs, such as Ricky Leutele and Sonny Bill Williams, who are now back in the NRL.
But there remains a large number still on the scrap heap, chasing payments owed to them and with little certainty about their futures in the sport. But, despite the chaos, the British Rugby League hierarchy is preparing to welcome another Canadian club into the fold for 2021.
In this article, we will analyse the prospects of the sport’s latest expansion club, the Ottawa Aces, and try to understand the mistakes made by the Wolfpack that the new outfit can hopefully learn from in the years ahead.
Building a squad
Ottawa have already set about assembling a team to compete in League 1 – British Rugby League’s third tier, and are arguably even more advanced in their preparations than a large number of established heartland clubs.
Unlike Toronto before them, the Aces haven’t gone after big names. Their recruitment has been a little more understated, with the majority of players to come through the door under the age of 25 and with the potential to improve.
The calibre of player is certainly high enough to have the Aces challenging at the top of League 1 next season, but it could almost be considered refreshing to see a lack of big names being brought in for their maiden campaign.
— Ottawa Aces (@ottawaaces) September 9, 2020
Running a club
Toronto’s business model was based around having the club in the UK for the majority of the time while playing home matches in the Canadian city. Following their establishment, the Wolfpack were based near Bradford, before later making the switch to Manchester and then Rochdale.
Home games were played in blocks to reduce travel, but you still got the feeling that operations were fragmented, with limited exposure to Canadian audiences. Despite all this, the Wolfpack succeeded in attracting big crowds to their Lamport Stadium home right from the start.
Ottawa owner Eric Perez, who helped launch the Wolfpack in 2017, appears to be taking the new club in a different direction. The squad is set to be based in the North American capital for the majority of the time, and playing home games out of the TD Place Stadium.
Perez will also be keen to keep opposing teams onside following occasional difficulties experienced by visitors to Toronto. Ottawa have announced that visiting players will be hosted at an Airport hotel while staying in Canada, which appears to be a step up from the disused student halls that the Wolfpack used.
Following a high-profile recruitment drive, Toronto unsurprisingly swept all before them to win the league in their first season, earning promotion to the Championship. It took just two attempts for the big-spending club to achieve elevation to Super League.
Although they headed into 2020 well behind the likes of St Helens, Wigan, and Leeds in the Rugby League odds to win the Grand Final, it could be argued that the club progressed too quickly. Without allowing time for developmental seeds to be planted, the brand are yet to become more widely entrenched in Toronto. Of course, success is crucial for any expansion outfit, but Perez will likely be eyeing steadier progress during the new club’s infancy.
Newly promoted Super League club Toronto Wolfpack have been asked to take a 'home' match to the Netherlands.
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) October 25, 2019
With Toronto’s Super League status for next season still fairly uncertain, many of the game’s observers are understandably cynical about the inclusion of the new club. But it’s already clear that Ottawa have learned plenty of lessons from their Canadian neighbours, and it will be fascinating to see how they fare in 2021.
A well known Rugby League writer, League Freak has established a reputation among supporters of the game for his fearless commentary and unmatched insight. With a reach that spans both sides of the globe, League Freak has produced an independent network that allows him to distribute content to his many thousands of followers. He is the owner and main author of LeagueFreak.com
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