“It feels like we’ve come home” Toronto Wolfpack Head Coach Paul Rowley said to a group of journalists huddled around a table as fans began to filter into Liberty Village’s 3 Brewers, just a few blocks away from Lamport Stadium, last Wednesday evening.
Within 30 minutes, the bar was full of Toronto Wolfpack season ticket holders, ready to greet some new, and some familiar, faces as the team held its eagerly-anticipated season launch event.
A matter of 24 hours earlier, the squad had just touched down in Canada following a seven-hour flight and fresh from an important win over Halifax RLFC in London the previous weekend.
Some even managed to fight off the jet lag a further 24 hours to attend a Toronto Raptors play-off game on the Thursday evening at the Air Canada Centre.
“It feels great to be back,” Rowley continued. “There are a lot of new faces in our squad and it’s really enjoyable watching them enjoy the new surroundings, the new sights and the new environment.”
One of those new faces is that of Ashton Sims, a former Fiji international who’s generating a lot of hype for Toronto in the Betfred Championship.
“It’s crazy,” the 33-year-old said. “I’m in North America, playing rugby league, the game I love.
“I’m getting stopped on the street with people coming up and showing so much interest in our game, the way we play and the way we’re going this year.”
Fast-forward two days and the Wolfpack were hosting over a hundred Swinton Lions fans at a bar on Bay Street, to welcome the visitors ahead of the 2018 Canadian Opener.
Planning for the game itself was made slightly more complicated due to a pitch renovation at the Wolfpack’s Lamport Stadium home, meaning the match was relocated to Fletcher’s Fields in Makrham – revered as the home of Rugby in Ontario.
Add to that the launch of the team’s new heritage jersey alongside the organization of transport for fans to and from the venue and there was plenty to keep staff on their toes in the lead-up to the match.
“The City of Markham was proud to play host to the Toronto Wolfpack’s season opener and welcome fans from across the region for an exciting game at Fletcher’s Field,” says Markham Mayor Frank Scarpitti. “Markham has a rich rugby history and Fletcher’s Field, having been home to Canada’s national rugby union team as well as host site for the 2008 Churchill Cup. We look forward to continuing to being the Toronto Wolfpack’s home away from home.”
Representatives of the City’s local professional women’s hockey team, the Markham Thunder were also in attendance. Players Taylor Woods, Megan Delay, Liz Knox, and Kristen Richards were welcomed onto the field by the Wolfpack to celebrate their recent CWHL Championship win.
As kick-off approached, an electric atmosphere was being generated by 2,917 supporters before renditions of the British and Canadian national anthems by Rhiannon Charles took it up another gear.
“It was great to see so many fans attend the game,” Scott Lidbury, the Wolfpack’s General Manager – Commercial, said.
“We’d like to extend our thanks to the staff at Fletcher’s Fields and the City of Markham for hosting an incredible 2018 Canadian Opener.
“We hope we brought some of our acclaimed Lamport game-day experience with us.”
A resounding 62-14 Wolfpack victory, in front of an international TV audience via Game TV, CBC Sports, Premier Sports and Eleven Sports of course added to the cause for celebration.
Gareth O’Brien, a recent signing from Super League side Salford Red Devils, scored two tries, which were key to the win.
After the game, the full-back spoke to the media and was quick to praise the atmosphere created by both the Wolfpack and Swinton fans on his home debut.
“It was loud, and we were in a massive, open field,” he said. “I’ve heard what Lamport is like so I’m really excited to get back here in three or four weeks’ time to experience that.”
The Wolfpack’s next home match on Canadian soil will be against fellow Championship high-fliers London Broncos. The Home Opener will take place back at Lamport Stadium on Saturday, June 9th (K.O. 4:30pm).
This weekend, however, following a return trip back to their UK base in Manchester, the Pack face a Challenge Cup sixth-round clash with Super League giants Warrington Wolves, at Halliwell Jones Stadium. The game is live on Sportsnet 360 in Canada and BBC2 in the UK (K.O. 3:30pm BST / 10:30am EDT).