By STEVE MASCORD
WHAT will you remember most about rugby league in 2017?
I’m guessing for many of you, it will be last week’s semi-finals. Who can forget Janice Powell sobbing on television at the Mend-a-Hose Jungle only to watch her husband’s team rise from the ashes in one of the greatest Super League contests of all time?
And if you’re following Leeds, it probably came down to last week too; coach Brian McDermott was so moved by the win over Hull he actually could not speak when interviewed.
If you live Down Under, you might nominate Queensland’s State Of Origin win, or the final time Billy Slater, Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith played together in Storm colours – a 34-6 grand final win last Sunday.
I’ve been attending live rugby league for 37 years now; I’ve seen games at every level and in 20 or so countries – NRL, Super League, internationals, World Club Challenge, Four Nations, Tri-Nations, finals, nines, sevens … you name it.
And my pick for 2017 isn’t just a highlight of this year – it’s a highlight of all those places, games, competitions and years.
It’s the birth of the Toronto Wolfpack.
Journalists are often (rightly) accused of being cynical but the Wolfpack brings out the opposite in me: the dreamer, the idealist, the believer.
The vast majority of rugby league’s attempts to expand have failed; precedent would overwhelmingly indicate the Wolfpack will, too. But I hope against all hope they can be the exception, that they will allow millions more to see what we all see in rugby league.
And as if they are a life-changing record by your favourite artist, their first 12 months of life has been paralleled by a resonant personal narrative. They’ve already changed my life.
The day after the 2016 NRL grand final – a year and a week ago – I found myself in Wilmington, Delaware. The Wolfpack were having open trials – ‘tryouts’ in the North American vernacular – on the outskirts of nearby Philadelphia.
With the help of Uber, I found myself attending the talent search at a compact rugby stadium. It’s here I first met Jeff Hagan – now a leading light in the Wolfpack organisation – coaches Paul Rowley and Simon Finnigan and director Adam Fogerty.
In December I travelled up and back in the day from London for their first friendly, a come-from-behind win against Brighouse Rangers – where they would base themselves while in England. In the packed clubhouse beforehand, their enigmatic owner David Argyle spoke in his mashed Australian-North American accent and the words he uttered only accentuated the exoticism.
For a start, the contracted players’ Christmas party coincided with the match (which involved only triallists). Fans were invited to get their autographs before they had too much to drink!
Can you imagine a similar announcement in Super League or the NRL? The season finished with Mad Monday-type cruise on Lake Ontario – to which fans were also invited!
Argyle that day also did something which few of his rivals would – he singled out RFL chief executive Nigel Wood. What’s different about that? He did so for praise and thanks – not criticism.
It was when I told my wife Sarah about this mysterious mining magnate that things got really interesting. If you’ve read my book, Touchstones, you’ll know that there’ve been many weird confluences of events in our relationship. “Argyle,” she said. “That rings a bell.”
I next crossed paths with the distinctive nifty wolf logo at Hull’s KC Stadium in January. The Wolfpack were playing a pre-season friendly against Lee Radford’s side and like an over-excited schoolboy I wanted a jersey. Yes, they were selling gear at an away game. How many clubs do that?
The shop was closed but I finally got my white, away Wolfpack shirt when they made their competitive bow against London Skolars at New River Stadium. To see this strange team leave their dressing sheds for the first time, and to stand behind them on the pitch as they saluted the crowd, is up there with being on the field at fulltime in a State of Origin or being embraced by players after an NRL grand final.
Of course, there was no choice to be made: I would have to be there for the Wolfpack’s first home game, against Oxford at a venue I had only previously seen on YouTube, Lamport Stadium, Toronto. By now, Sarah had figured out that Rebecca Argyle – David’s sister – was an old colleague with whom she had been very close but had fallen out of touch with. Rebecca now works on a lot of Wolfpack business.
In Toronto, my wife became a VIP and I her nameless date! To see 7000 people show up, marching from the Brazen Head pub in Liberty Village to the ground, and accept our sport with such enthusiasm and positivity was just stupefying. There isn’t enough paper in this programme to describe what a revelatory experience the first Wolfpack home game was; these people knew nothing of Sydney club chairmen, franchising versus promotion and relegation, the RLPA or RLEF. They were willing to learn – but you almost felt like protecting them from those aspects of our sport that would bring them down. They were like newly-borns, brimming with hope.
My Australian employers, Fairfax, were on strike that weekend so it was all socialising – plenty of it at Argyle’s hip sushi bar and club, Katana. David finally figure out Sarah’s unkempt husband worked in the rugby league industry and was immediately a sponge for information.
Back in London, my business partner Phill Browne had organised for the Maple Leaf bar in Covent Garden to show Wolfpack games. We were there watching one – with Phill, Rebecca and others who we had met in Toronto – when we heard of the horrible attacks at London Bridge.
And so onto the final home game for the table-topping debut season of the Toronto Wolfpack, against Doncaster. A year had passed since I walked through the gates of the Garthwaite Stadium in Conschohoken for those open trials, knowing no-one.
The club that meant so much to me as an outsider, as a believer that rugby league can be much, much more, had become a group of family friends. I would argue I had not surrendered my journalistic objectivity – there was much controversy after the Oxford game which I reported without bias, I think – but something completely accidental had occurred. Something I admired intellectually had permeated my personal life through sheer happenstance. I was hooked emotionally, too.
I’ve not had a club to cheer since my Illawarra Steelers merged with St George in 1998. Without being able to see things through the prism of a supporter, much of the appeal of sport is lost. I have that again now.
So whatever happens at Old Trafford tonight, nothing will top the last 12 months for me.
This story first appeared in the 2017 Super League grand final match programme