TORONTO — Champagne flowed, beer was guzzled and a trophy was hoisted Saturday as the first-year Toronto Wolfpack moved up the English rugby league ladder.
Rugby's first transatlantic team defeated a tough Barrow Raiders side 26-2 to secure promotion to the second-tier Championship with one game remaining in the season.
Eighteen unanswered second-half points secured the victory that assures Toronto (19-1-1) of the Kingstone Press League 1 title and the automatic promotion berth that comes with it.
Coach Paul Rowley praised the hard work and sacrifice of his players, saying they toil "for rewards that are nowhere near what other sportsmen get."
"We came together as a bunch of individuals, we became a family of players and staff," he added. "And then we got some new additions to the family — that's the people of Toronto who are here today."
Barrow (17-3-1) made the Wolfpack work for everything for the first 50 minutes before a season-high attendance of 7,972 at a sunny Lamport Stadium. But Toronto pulled ahead with converted tries in the 53rd, 55th and 59th minutes as holes opened in the tiring visitors' defence.
"We're champions, we're proud of it and this is the start of something special," said hooker Bob Beswick after downing what looked to be the first of many cans of beer.
Added Rowley: "This is a success already and the rugby league world needs to take notice. This is the future, this is the future of sport not just rugby league. The world is a smaller place."
Toronto now has its sights on the elite Super League. But it will have to get through the Championship first.
The Wolfpack, a fully professional side albeit one with a small squad, had its way with semi-pro opposition in the third tier. Playing in the Championship means tougher, full-time foes.
Beswick is convinced the sky's the limit.
"I'm not sure what the owners are thinking, I'm not sure what the fans are thinking but we've had what nearly 8,000 here today for a sport nobody's heard of in Canada. So I think we're going to touch on something special.
"Next year we'll probably get close to 10,000. Super League, which is our premier division, isn't getting that consistently."
For CEO Eric Perez, this title is just the start. He is working on placing another franchise in Canada while scheming to keep the Wolfpack moving up.
"Stage 1 is complete. It's a three-stage game. Stage 3 will be Super League. So when we get there, then we'll really see what the potential of this team is," he said.
A showdown between No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the third-tier league, it was a hard-hitting contest with more than one player left wobbly by a huge hit, some of which were illegal. Toronto can thank its defence for resisting numerous early Barrow attacks after an error-strewn start.
Blake Wallace scored two tries for Toronto while Quentin Laulu-Togaga’e and Richard Whiting added singles. Captain Craig Hall had four conversions and a penalty.
Lewis Charnock kicked a penalty for Barrow, which was beaten 70-2 on its May visit to Canada.
Helped by Toronto penalties and handing errors, Barrow had more of the ball early but was unable to turn it into points. The Wolfpack went ahead in the 14th minute after a fine break by Hall set up the opening try by Laulu-Togaga’e and led 8-0 at halftime after a Hall penalty.
Barrow laid siege to the Toronto goal-line to open the second half but didn't get on the board until Charnock's 49th-minute penalty cut the lead to 8-2.
The Wolfpack then took over. A swerving run by Wallace in the 53rd minute increased the Toronto lead and Whiting barrelled over two minutes later. Wallace crossed again in the 59th.
Promotion comes 21 league games and 500 days after the franchise was announced to a mostly incredulous local audience in April 2016. And with one game remaining, against visiting Doncaster next Saturday.
Toronto came into the game with a two-point lead over Barrow, needing just a win or tie to achieve its promotion goal. Barrow still has a shot at going up given the second- through fifth-place teams will face off to see who joins Toronto in the Championship.
Toronto improved to 10-0-0 at Lamport Stadium, having outscored its opposition 544-102.
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By Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press