When the Toronto Wolfpack make their debut Saturday in London in the third tier of English rugby league, a Canadian international will be standing in their way.
English-born Louis Robinson, one of the London Skolars’ leading forwards, qualifies to wear the Maple Leaf because his grandfather was originally from Ottawa. The six-foot-one 230-pounder came to the attention of Canadian rugby league officials some six years ago when, surfing the Internet during a break from studying for exams at university, he shot them an email.
“They wrote me back almost straight away,” he said.
A couple of weeks later, Robinson got a plane ticket to play for Canada against Jamaica.
On Saturday, the 26-year-old Robinson and his Skolars welcome Canada’s first pro rugby league team â€” and the sport’s first transatlantic entry â€” to the Kingstone Press League 1 for a game that is being broadcast in both England (via Premier Sports) and Canada (GameTV).
“We have people travelling from all over England to come and watch this game,” said Robinson. “So it’ll be massive.”
“I can tell you we’ve injected a lot of life into League 1,” Wolfpack CEO Eric Perez said proudly.
The Wolfpack are certainly good for the box office. “We expect to get our biggest crowd, ever,” said Skolars GM Jac Davies.
The London team normally draws 500-600 fans per game at the New River Stadium, whose main stand seats around 1,000. Davies expects 1,500 Saturday, with the overflow in concrete terraces.
“I think the lads are really fired up, looking forward to it” said Davies. “Hopefully we can do a job on Saturday.”
The odds are against the London team, which finished eighth in the league last year with an 8-6-0 record.
Toronto is a fully professional side. The other teams in the league are semi-pro â€” the Skolars have day jobs, from plumbers and electricians to teachers and engineers, and train three times a week.
“Everybody going up against them is going to be an underdog,” Davies of the Wolfpack.
Robinson used to work in the Skolars commercial sales department but now is with a company that designs publications for sports events.
The Wolfpack are a global bunch with players from Australia, England, Ireland, New Zealand, Scotland, Tonga, the U.S. and Wales as well as Canada internationals Rhys Jacks and Tom Dempsey, who like Robinson have Canadian bloodlines.
Essentially the team will be based in the north of England, travelling to home games in Toronto as needed.
The Wolfpack are hoping to follow in the footsteps of Toulouse Olympique XIII, a fully professional side that returned to English play last season. Playing in the same division last year, they won promotion to the second-tier Championship after going 13-0-1 in league play.
Rugby league is the 13-man version of the game, as opposed to the more widely played 15-man rugby union.
Rugby league is a hard-nosed game, featuring gang-tackling and ferocious hits. But it can also be elegant, with backs taking on defences with intricate attacks.
The Skolars were founded by Ian (Hector) McNeil in 1995 as a club for post-graduate students in London. McNeil had played rugby league and couldn’t find a club when he came to London to continue his studies. So he set up his own team.
Despite the team nickname, the rugby-playing students could spell. A short-lived sponsorship deal with Skol led to the Skolars spelling.
Fifteen years ago, it was the Skolars who applied to move up the ladder and leave the amateur ranks. Now they are hosting the new pro kids on the block.
Davies has no problem with the deep-pocketed Wolfpack joining his league, saying it’s good for the sport.
“It’s a sport that’s had persistent failings in expansion,” he said. “So to see this much effort and determination to be put into something (is good). And I think they’re doing it the right way. Instead of going straight to Super League, they’re going to progress up the leaguer
“They’re ambitious, so I don’t hold it against them that they’re spending big money now on big players. That’s fine. I think it brings the right level of attention to our league, the amount of attention it deserves. Getting our games televised, that sort of thing, I think it’s fantastic. But more widely, as well as being good for our club and our league, it’s good for the sport.”
Perez is just happy to see his rugby league dream take flight
“I’m a fan right now,” said Perez, who will be in the stands Saturday. “I can’t wait for the game.
“The nerves I guess that’s for the players and the coaching staff. This is one part that I can’t really affect now. And I wouldn’t want to. That’s why I brought in the professionals.”
Toronto made its competitive debut last weekend in a win over amateur side Siddal in the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup.
The Wolfpack are set to play the other London side, the Broncos, in the fourth round of the knockout tournament later this month. The Broncos, who are in the second-tier Championship, played in the elite Super League from 1996 through 2014.
Robinson came through the Broncos academy before switching to the Skolars six years ago.
Toronto’s home opener is May 6 against Oxford RLFC.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press