The Toronto Wolfpack fell to 0-3 in their premiere Super League season after a back-and-forth affair with the Wigan Warriors that they lost 32-10.
It’s safe to say that things haven’t gone according to plan for the transatlantic side to this point. While they’ve scored first in all three matches, they’ve lacked the staying power to go wire-to-wire. That, combined with the injury issues and a small-numbered squad have contributed to the less-than-stellar record.
But while the record may paint a gloomy picture, things aren’t nearly as bad as they seem. Toronto has been competitive for a time in all three matches, and have strung together stretches of solid play.
So instead of dwelling on the negative, here are five things we’ve learned from the first three games.
It’s Just Three Games
This may go without saying, but it’s just three games out of a whole season.
What’s more, those three games were against the second, third and fifth place teams from last year. As a comparison, the London Broncos went 1-7 against Salford, Wigan and Castleford in 2019.
Things won’t get much easier with Warrington up next and then St Helens, but it’s an unenviable opening stretch. The Wolfpack have gone shot for shot with some of the league’s best, but just haven’t been able to go 12 rounds.
Endurance a Work in Progress
Speaking of being able to go 12 rounds, a solid 80-minute effort has escaped Toronto in all three games. But they’re not far off.
Consider this from Brian McDermott following the loss at Wigan.
It’s a funny one really to assess because I’m watching us play and I like how we play. I like what we do, I like our attitude and a couple of moments there was a whole host of momentum against us and we seem to be able to get back in the game through a number of things. One of them being about playing for each other and showing up for each other. A bit of toughness and all that.Brian McDermott, post-game vs Wigan
In each of their losses there have been things to build on. But the most glaring missteps are coming in the last ten minutes of either half.
In the final ten minutes of the first and second halves against Wigan, the Wolfpack gave up 16 points combined. Against Salford, the two killing blows came in the last ten minutes of the game. And in the season opener against Castleford, things got out of hand when the Tigers scored two tries (one converted) and added a penalty in the 40th minute.
This, of course, comes with the territory. The Wolfpack were likely in the best shape of any non-Super League squad last year. But being in Super League shape is different. It’s also a different kind of stamina when you’re playing ahead for most of the game, rather than being tied or playing from behind.
It’ll be a slow build, but once the Wolfpack start to get into Super League shape, the results will come.
The Squad is Small, but There Will be (some) Reinforcements
While plenty has been made about the size of the squad, there’s little that can be done about that now, or in the future. This is the hand they were dealt, and outside of a few cap-excused youngsters, not much will change.
But considering there may finally be an end in sight for the Chase Stanley Visa saga, that’s one healthy body the Wolfpack can count on getting back. Mixing in Darcy Lussick once he’s in playing shape will be a massive addition too. And of course the game against Wigan was played without Sonny Bill Williams, who was welcoming the newest addition to his family.
Yes, those additions could be offset by the losses of Joe Mellor (hand), Gadwin Springer (concussion) and James Cunningham (hamstring) for varying amounts of time, but it’s a boost. Especially considering two of the positions at play.
Both Lussick and Stanley have been sorely missed in the early stages of the season. Lussick adds strength and an edge to Toronto defensively, while Stanley brings a hard-running style, as well as stability to the outside. Two areas where, as the games have worn on, Toronto has needed the most help.
Figure Out the Gareth O’Brien Situation
This has been one of the more confounding turns in the young season for the Wolfpack.
A staple in the lineup the last two years, O’Brien was stuck on the bench for the first two games.
When he started at fullback on Thursday, there was an immediate impact. That’s not to say that Blake Wallace had done poorly in his first two games. Far from it. But O’Brien brings a level of fearlessness to the position that Toronto, in my opinion, needs.
It was a coaches call (to leave me out of the opening rounds) and I’ve got parts of my game I need to work on and improve. Me and him (McDermott) had a good chat before the start of the year and I’ve just got to work hard and it’s up to the boss to pick the team. I got back in today and I’ve enjoyed it. Hopefully I can kick on now and play next week.”Gareth O’Brien post-game vs Wigan
In fact, I think the team is better when both he and Wallace are on the field.
Outside of one miscommunication with Matty Russell against the Warriors, O’Brien displayed his classic steely demeanour, fielding a number of kicks deep in his own territory. An unfortunate knock-on was the only other blemish on an afternoon where Gaz willingly walked into five-car pile-ups.
If he’s not in their plans, as Sky’s Jenna Brooks asked Brian McDermott pregame, then Toronto should figure out their next move quickly. Especially considering how long the Ryan Brierley situation dragged on last year when the Wolfpack struggled to find a willing partner, and how it loomed over the team in the first half.
Is anybody guaranteed shirt in our team? No chance. Everyone has that same level of honesty and same level of attitude towards gaining a shirt. He was massively disappointed he wasn’t in the team, I was just looking at some other options.Brian McDermott pre-game vs Wigan
But, if he is moved, he adds a dimension to this team that will be nearly impossible to replace.
This may be a sobering thought for some, but it bears repeating: this will not go the same way as the past three seasons.
But while some break out into fights on message boards over whether this start is a pearl-clutching disappointment or just a steep learning curve, keep in mind this kind of adjustment is foreign in North American sports.
When the Toronto Maple Leafs were the worst team in the NHL a few years ago, they didn’t have to go down to the AHL the following year. And when Raptors 905 (the Toronto Raptors G-League affiliate) won their title, they weren’t up battling it out with LeBron and company in the NBA the next year.
Fans in North America simply aren’t familiar with the relegation/promotion system and the challenges that come with it. And there are lots of them. Just ask the London Broncos.
The expectation was never to run the table, claim top spot and to waltz to a Super League crown in year one. It was to compete.
And despite the fact they have yet to take home their first win in Rugby League’s top tier, for better or for worse, that’s what the Wolfpack have done.