Backing the Pack

The 2017 Kingston Press League 1 kicked off a few weeks ago, with one notable new addition. Founded in 2016, the Toronto Wolfpack are Canada’s first professional rugby league team. Having been denied the chance to go straight into the Super League, they are starting in the third tier of the RFL’s leagues, but as 12 of their 15 opponents are part-time, they are expected to quickly rise up the ranks and soon be competing for a place in the top tier.

I’ll be the first to admit that my knowledge of rugby league is somewhat lacking. Having lived all my life in Gloucestershire or Wales, I’ve grown up a fan of rugby union, but in recent years I have begun to enjoy watching league and am starting to learn my way in the sport. As I have previously commented on the thought of the NFL introducing a UK-based franchise, I thought it was only fair to give my ten (Canadian) cents on the reverse being done.

 

Toronto clearly have no plans to stay in League 1 long-term. The acquisition of former Great Britain head coach Brian Noble in the Director of Rugby role suggests that they want someone with experience of winning the top competitions (Noble is one of only two coaches to have won 3 super League Grand Finals and has also won 2 Super League Leader’s Shields, 1 Challenge Cup and 3 World Club Challenges).

They have also recruited well for the playing squad, with a number of players with Super League or Championship experience. A large proportion of the squad have signed from Bradford Bulls and Leigh Centurions, most notably former New Zealand and Tonga prop Fuifui Moimoi. They also have players who have been capped for the USA, Canada, Ireland and Wales. Granted these are not ‘top’ teams in international rugby league, but any players with international experience will bring some real quality to the Wolfpack.

I do feel a bit sorry for the teams in the league who have to deal with the step up in quality when playing the Wolfpack, but I feel that for the future of the franchise it was right to put them a few leagues down rather than start them in one of the top 2 tiers. It will never be easy to build up a fan base for a new team in an emerging sport, but for a market like Toronto that is already saturated with professional teams – they have franchises in the MLB, MLS, NHL, NBA and other leagues that I am less familiar with – it is important that the team be successful immediately in order to keep the fans engaged and build up a fan base, especially as their ‘local’ away games still involve a trip across the Atlantic.

 

When I looked at the potential issues of setting up UK-based NFL franchise, I mentioned that the amount of transatlantic travel throughout the season could put them at a disadvantage. I hope the NFL are taking note, as the Wolfpack’s travel plans may hold the answer. The Wolfpack will be playing their home and away matches in blocks of 4 or 5 games. They will also be staying in the UK during these ‘away’ blocks, sharing a training ground with Brighouse Rangers. This will mean that players are less effected by jet lag or other issues relating to regular travel. Having blocks of games will likely also help them keep the fans engaged both in the UK and Canada, as if they enjoy going to a game one week, they will often be able to back that up by going the next few weeks as well. The one potential issue that I see here relates to the team’s involvement in the Challenge Cup. Cup games are allocated specific weeks in which to be played, if the Wolfpack are drawn at home in the middle of their away block – or vice versa – I will be interested to see what impact the extra travel will have on them, as I’m sure they would not want to sacrifice home advantage for a knockout cup game.

Travelling to Canada and back will not be a cheap trip for part-time teams, so it is also really good to see that Toronto’s sponsor Air Transat are providing free travel for their opponents’ playing squad and staff and also subsidised travel for any English fans making the journey. It will be interesting to see if this is something that continues as they move up through the leagues and start to face fully professional opposition. This would be of great expense to the league if they were to do this themselves, so it would not surprise me if this was a huge factor in Toronto’s pitch to join the leagues.

 

Toronto Wolfpack being in the English leagues may be the start of a North American love affair with rugby league. Rugby union is slowly taking off, with much more interest in 7s and a professional league set up in the USA last year. I can imagine that league is a game that Americans and Canadians can get into, as it is arguably more exciting for someone new to the sport to watch than 15-a-side rugby union due to the faster pace and the lack of rucks (and especially reset scrums).

While there are only a few players from the USA or Canada in the current Wolfpack squad, they are running trials to identify players who have not made it in the NFL or the CFL (Canadian Football League). This seems to be working well for the USA rugby union (look at Perry Baker in the 7s) so I’m sure some real talent will be developed by the Wolfpack over the next few years, which will only benefit the USA and Canadian national teams.

Any improvement in the quality of North American rugby league can surely only be a plus for the sport. While union has seen participation increasing right around the world and the top Northern Hemisphere teams catching up with their Southern Hemisphere opponents, there is a huge gulf in the Rugby League International Federation (RLIF) World Rankings between the top 3 teams (Australia, New Zealand and England) and the best of the rest (Scotland, Samoa and France). Surely becoming more widespread and even at international level can only benefit the sport, or we could see more players choosing to follow Denny Solomona to union or seeing if they can have more success in the NFL than Jarryd Hayne.

 

It may take us a while to see the full impact that the Wolfpack have on rugby league, but I’m sure that if given the chance it will be a positive one. If nothing else, I’m sure there will be a lot of fans and players using the fixtures list as an excuse to renew their passport and book a trip to Canada! They’ve started the season well, winning their first 2 league games (away from home) and making it through the 3rd round of the Challenge Cup. Next up is their 4th round game against London Broncos on Friday, then 2 more league games in the UK before finally playing their 1st League 1 game in Canada in early May.

Best of luck for the rest of the season Toronto, I’ll be watching with great interest!

 

What do you think of Toronto Wolfpack? Have an opinion on anything I’ve mentioned? Comment on here or feel free to tweet me @PS_tetheridge

It’s rugby, Jim, but not as we know it…

Former Wigan winger Josh Charnley is expected to make his rugby union debut from the bench this Friday in Sale’s Anglo-Welsh Cup game against Wasps. In the summer, I named Charnley as one of the players I was most looking forward to seeing in the Premiership this season, with good reason. He finished his Wigan career with a whopping 165 tries in 176 appearances, including one in this year’s Super League Grand Final, so is clearly a player who knows his way to the try-line. Having only started his union training a couple of weeks ago, expectations should be low initially, but I am sure if given the chance he could go on to emulate former Wigan-to-Sale convert and 2003 World Cup winner Jason Robinson.

However, for every Jason Robinson or Sonny Bill Williams, there will be plenty of players who try to make the switch with much more limited success. And this is not just limited to players converting from league. Though league and union share many of the same basic skills and ideas – passing backwards, tackling, kicking and scoring tries – they are also two very different sports. Probably the highest profile switch in recent years was that of Sam Burgess. A superstar in league, his time in union was anything but easy, and after a poor World Cup, he left his contract with Bath early and returned to NRL’s South Sydney Rabbitohs. But more on Slammin’ Sam later…

Below are my thoughts on the areas that could cause issue for a player switching codes either way. This is something I really started thinking about while watching the Mitsubishi Hybrid Cup match at Kingsholm recently. I’m still somewhat of a league rookie, so if you disagree with any of my thoughts or think I missed something, feel free to comment at the end.

 

Finding the right position

I fully expect Charnley to play wing for Sale, just like he did at Wigan. When coming to a new sport and a new environment, any familiarity will help a transition. Not all code-switchers will be able to continue playing the same position however, partially down to there being a difference in the number of players on the pitch, but also due to the difference in requirements for the same position in the different codes. In rugby league, Sam Burgess is predominantly a prop and Sonny Bill Williams a second row. These positions clearly wouldn’t be right for them in union, due to the physical demands on the tight five in the set piece. Williams has primarily played in the centre in union, using his power and pace to cause a problem in midfield and draw in defenders, before letting fly with a killer offload to put a teammate clean through. Even before his move to Bath was confirmed, Burgess was seen as being England’s very own Sonny Bill, so Bath tried to play him at centre but eventually moved him to flanker, where he looked much better and more comfortable. Unfortunately, Stuart Lancaster and the England coaching staff disagreed, taking him to the World Cup as a centre ahead of much more established players.

Getting used to how to play your position in a new game is a big part of the transition, so a lack in consistency of where you’re playing will not be at all helpful, especially when the positions are as different as flanker and centre in union.

Skills to pay the bills

As alluded to above, there are different skill requirements between the two rugby codes. The most obvious one at first glance is the absence of rucking and mauling in league. Though the basic idea of rucking can be picked up relatively quick – come in lower and harder than the opposition – it takes time and practice to learn to ruck effectively, safely and without giving away penalties. Players who look to go into the pack when switching to union also need to learn how to scrummage correctly and also how to perform an effective line-out. The big skill that comes to mind in league is the ability once tackled to get quickly back to feet and play the ball, providing quick ball to hopefully catch the defence out before they have had time to reorganise. The limit of 6 completed tackles per set in league also increases the usefulness of the offload. As such, players often run into contact with the ball in just one hand, something that is often discouraged in union. Many league tackles could be considered a ‘man and ball’ tackle – taking a ball carrier around the torso to stop him being able to get an arm free and offload – whereas union generally teaches the first tackler to take the ball carrier’s legs and leave the ball for the next man in.

While these skills are relatively easy to learn, it will take a considerable amount of practice to master these skills to the same degree as someone who has been doing it their entire career. I can’t imagine that we will ever have many players convert from league into the front row due to just how specialised those positions are. In the past I couldn’t have imagined many players converting to the second row,Brad Thorn being an exception to the rule, however with the emergence of a number of second row/back row hybrids, there is possibly more chance of a convert playing this position than before.

Fitness

I could go on for hours about how much I hate the scrum in modern rugby union. What should be a quick way to restart the game while tying in the forwards has become a 5 minute ordeal of reset scrums before a penalty that 8 times out of 10 should probably have gone the other way. This, combined with a high number of line-outs, heavily limits the time that the ball is in play. It is also much easier to produce ‘slow’ ball at a union breakdown that at a play the ball in league.

League is a game with far fewer stoppages, so players have less of a chance to catch their breath and as such need to have higher aerobic fitness levels. Union has definitely improved in this area over the years, to the point that even props are starting to look like athletes rather than slabs of meat, however I still feel that the average fitness levels in union would be lower than in league. With fewer players on the pitch, a lack of fitness could have devastating effects for a team trying to defend.

I feel like it may take a union player longer to adapt to the fitness requirements of league than the other way round, and as such a convert given their chance too soon may be found to be a weak link by the opposition.

Tactical differences

One of my big thoughts watching the Gloucester Legends team in the 2nd half of the Hybrid Cup was how much they looked like a team of union players trying to play league. That is not meant to sound at all like an insult as that is exactly what they are. The differences in rules requires a completely different set of tactics.

Union tactics generally go along the lines of kick for territory,taking advantage of a poor opposition kick and then holding onto the ball for multiple phases in and around the 22 until the chance comes to manufacture a scoring chance or a chance to kick at goal. It’s not uncommon for a team to hold possession for around 20+ phases. Driving mauls and pushover 5m scrums are also frequently used tactics.

League’s limit of 6 tackles per set leads to tactics that allow maximum territory gain over 5 tackles before either kicking downfield to pin the opposition deep in their own territory or looking for the grubber/high kick to allow a chasing player to compete and try to score a try. Every phase counts and positive yardage is a must. Scrums are over almost before they begin.

In general, league appears to do a better job of encouraging players to come onto the ball from deep to improve their momentum going into contact, and also uses dummy runners to manipulate the defensive line much more effectively. A convert playing in an influential position would have to put in a lot of effort to understand the game well enough to control the game while on the pitch.

 

All of these are possible to navigate if given the time. The big problem comes when a code-switcher is expected to play at a high level straight away. Sam Burgess was one of the top names in league when he chose to up sticks from Australia and return to England to play union for Bath. Even before he was on the plane, the talk was of him being fast-tracked into the England squad for the World Cup. Luckily at Bath he had a great set of players to learn from, including being taught the intricacies of the breakdown from one of the best flankers in the world, Francois Louw. After a delayed debut courtesy of an injury picked up in the NRL Grand Final he finally made his debut in late November, less than a year before the World Cup. Initially he was played as a 12, including a forgettable performance for the England Saxons in January. However he was soon moved to openside flanker where he looked much more comfortable and arguably earned his place in the starting lineup ahead of high quality competition like Carl Fearns. He was even one of Bath’s better players when they were overpowered in the Premiership Final by Saracens. In the buildup to the World Cup squad selection, it was made clear that the England coaches considered there to already be enough back row options, so Burgess would only be considered as a centre. Despite the availability of established centres such as Luther Burrell and Kyle Eastmond – the man in possession of the 12 shirt at Bath – Burgess was picked as 1 of 4 centres, alongside Henry Slade who was also lacking international experience. Though he performed admirably when given the chance, it was clear that the coaching staff didn’t know how to use Burgess effectively and they were humiliated by crashing out at the group stage of their home World Cup. Though the coaches eventually lost their job, Burgess was made somewhat of a scapegoat and understandably chose to return to the Rabbitohs soon after.

It shows how dangerous expectations can be when a player is considered a failure when within a span of less than a year they have learned a new game, made their professional debut, become a regular starter at club level, played in a final and been capped internationally. Unfortunately too much was expected in too short a time and without the right people in place to get the best out of him. I was extremely disappointed that he chose to give up on union so quickly, as I feel that given time he could have easily hit the heights of Robinson and Williams, but I do understand his reasoning.

Hopefully everyone has learned lessons from this sorry saga, which can now be used to give Josh Charnley every chance to find his feet and thrive at Sale and, possibly, in the future with England.

 

Good luck Josh! Except when you play against Gloucester, please go easy on us!