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Wolfpack players still sacrificing their bodies as rugby team nears promotion


TORONTO — As a spirited Toronto Wolfpack practice continued around him Wednesday, forward Dan Fleming received medical attention for a nose that refused to stop bleeding.

Winger Liam Kay exited a little later, an icebag wrapped around his knee.

Twenty games into their inaugural season with the finish line in sight, the Toronto Wolfpack (18-1-1) are still willing to bleed and ache for the cause. A win or tie against the second-place Barrow Raiders (17-2-1) at Lamport Stadium on Saturday and the first-year rugby league side will win promotion to England's second-tier Championship.

It is the biggest game of the young franchise's short history.

"This is (like) Grand Final week," said Toronto coach Paul Rowley, referring to the championship game of England's elite Super League.

"End of story. Nothing needs to be said about that. That's it." 

With both teams having one remaining game after this weekend, Toronto holds a two-point edge over Barrow. The Raiders need to win Saturday and hope the Wolfpack stumble against Doncaster on Sept. 16 in the season finale.

A points tie at the end of the season favours Toronto, which has a 525-point edge over Barrow in point differential — the first tiebreaker. The league champion secures automatic promotion while the next four teams face off to see who joins them.

The brainchild of current CEO Eric Perez, the Wolfpack had to join the third tier of English rugby league — the semi-pro Kingstone Press League 1 — and work their way up.

Promotion to the Championship would come some 17 months after rugby's first transatlantic franchise was announced to mostly incredulous reaction. Even Nigel Wood, chief executive officer of the governing body for rugby league in the United Kingdom, called the venture "a leap of faith."

Could the third-tier of rugby's lesser-known code succeed in what the NFL or NBA has yet to try?

Still Wood was optimistic back in April 2016. "The world is shrinking," he said.

Toronto has proved him right, although the Wolfpack have had to put their money where their mouth is to do so.

The Toronto franchise, owned by a consortium led by Australian entrepreneur David Argyle, paid a "good-faith" fee of 250,000 pounds (C$398,425) to the Rugby Football League. And it agreed to pay the travel and housing costs for visiting teams until it makes it to the Super League.

A sponsorship deal with Air Transat has helped ease the cost of transporting both the Wolfpack and visitors.

With announced crowds of more than 6,000 at recent home matches, Toronto has proved to be a draw at home. And the Wolfpack fans have proved to be gracious hosts, greeting both home and visiting players with hugs and the occasional pint as the teams mingle with spectators after each game.

Toronto thumped Barrow 70-2 when the teams met May 20 at Lamport Stadium. Rowley expects a far tougher contest now that teams are in the business end of the schedule.

"They've got a full complement of players this time, for a start," he said.

While the Wolfpack boasts a fully professional roster, it is a small squad and has been hit hard by injuries at times. The good news is the injury list is smaller than it has been for a while with only Ryan Brierley (hand) and Ryan Bailey (knee) missing.

"We've got some competition for places ... and some tough decisions now as well," said Rowley, a former England hooker. "Everybody wants to play this week, as you can imagine.

"We're in a good place — mentally."


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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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