The challenge begins for real Saturday for the Toronto Wolfpack.
The trail-blazing transatlantic rugby league club plays its first competitive match, taking on Siddal in the third round of the knockout Ladbrokes Challenge Cup.
Toronto opens league play on March 4 at the London Skolars in the Kingstone Press League 1, the third tier of English rugby.
A successful amateur side in West Yorkshire, Siddal has sent players to the pro ranks and become a home for former pros. It is a well-established club with more than 350 players spread over 16 teams from youth to masters.
Siddal topped the Premier Division of England’s National Conference League last season with an 18-4-0 record and defeated League 1’s Newcastle Thunder 40-4 before falling 48-20 to the Rochdale Hornets in Cup play.
“They’re probably one of the most decorated amateur clubs,” said Wolfpack coach Paul Rowley. “They would arguably be better than some of the teams that we’ll play against this year in the professional league.”
The Wolfpack, who have been training in Yorkshire near Siddal’s Halifax base since November, have already drawn interest in England. Saturday’s game will be streamed live on BBC Sport.
“I’m rather sure that (Siddal) sense an opportunity to take a scalp whilst the world is watching … because Toronto Wolfpack bring with it a lot of interested people,” said Rowley. “They’re a very very good team, they’re a very tough opponent.”
The third round sees Toronto and the other 15 Kingstone Press League 1 clubs joining the eight second-round winners.
Siddal, which made the fourth round of last year’s competition, beat the Milford Marlins 16-4 and Pilkinton Recs 34-10 to earn the date with Toronto.
It’s a blue-collar outfit. There is no stadium, just CWC Park â€” a ground with people ringing the field.
“It’s back to rugby league raw. And we’re comfortable with that. That’s fine,” said Rowley, a former England hooker. “I’ve said from the outset we’re very humble. This is where the game starts. Clubs like Siddal are fantastic for the game â€” in fact there’d be no game without these sort of clubs
“We’re looking forward (to playing) and very respectful of Siddal, not only the people who play for the team but the people who run the club and that goes with it.”
In contrast to Siddal, Toronto is a well-heeled startup looking to win promotion all the way to the Super League.
Welsh international Dan Fleming and England’s Gary Wheeler are both unlikely to play for Toronto due to injury.
“It’s a small squad selection but we’re healthy enough to give a couple of headaches,” said Rowley. “So we’re more than happy.”
Toronto has played one pre-season game to date, losing 26-20 to Super League team Hull FC in late January. Rowley believes the team has improved dramatically since and is eager to see it in action against Siddal.
“We’re all excited. Now we want to get stuck in.”
Toronto’s first home game is May 6 against Oxford RLFC.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version misspelled Rochdale.