TORONTO - A cursory Google search reveals a 6,220-km gap between Toronto and Toulouse, France. There may as well be an ocean separating the Toronto Wolfpack and Toulouse Olympique in their approaches to the game ahead of Sunday’s upcoming semifinal as well.
Toronto posted a spectacular 26-1 record during the regular season, earning a berth into the semifinal, with just two wins standing in its way of reaching the top-tier Super League. With a victory over Toulouse, and a subsequent win in the Grand Final on Oct. 5, Toronto would qualify for the Super League, primarily hosted in England.
Toulouse is the lone club to defeat Toronto this season, and it could be tactical warfare all over again when both sides square off at Lamport Stadium.
Jon Wilkin, one of three Wolfpack players who earned a Player of the Year nomination, believes the differences between both clubs extend well beyond the playing field.
“If you look at Toulouse, actually, it brings up a bigger sort of discussion and I think it's the cultural differences in Europe,” Wilkin told Yahoo Sports Canada.
“So the French are quite flamboyant by nature, romantic, they love the arts and they're creative. I suppose where I grew up playing rugby league, in the north of England, it's quite stoic, straightforward, no-nonsense. And those two styles coming together, it always interests me.”
“We've got a bit of flair about us, we're not uncreative. The big challenge for us is Toulouse will do anything, can do anything with the ball. But that being said, there's two sides to the game.”
Toulouse routed Toronto 46-16 on March 9 at the Stade Ernest-Argelès. Even the best of seasons have aberrations, and since the loss, the Wolfpack rattled off 21 consecutive victories, a point of pride for all members involved with the franchise.
Toronto avenged its defeat, with victories over Toulouse on May 18 in Blackpool, England, a 42-14 rout, then beat the Frenchmen again at home on June 22, emerging with a 28-16 win.
After months to reflect on their only loss, and entering their fourth showdown of the year against the 20-7 Toulouse club, the Wolfpack are expecting their opponent to improvise continuously.
“They're a bit like a touch football rugby league team,” Wolfpack wing Matty Russell said. “They're very off the cuff, they throw the ball around. It's going to be exciting for the fans to watch. They score a lot of good tries. But that's why we need to be on our game this week.
“I think they're the main team to have pushed us this year and they're the only team that have beat us. They had them factors in the game that they beat us, with the long-range tries, and they have some fast players, too.”
Wolfpack fullback Gareth O’Brien, who is also in the running for Player of the Year alongside Wilkin and teammate Andy Ackers, is confident his team will get the job done against a team known to freestyle at all junctures.
“We're expecting them to bring a different test than what we've been used to the last couple of weeks. They play a lot of off-the-cuff stuff and by that I mean they throw the ball around. Sometimes, they might not know what they're doing,” O’Brien said.
“We have to be on our game defensively, especially. We put our systems in place, I'm sure, we'll get the result on Sunday but it'll be a tough test.”
The Wolfpack are on the verge of a major breakthrough into Toronto’s mainstream and the team’s expanding fan base knows what’s at stake Sunday.
“For the fans, they just bring noise and enthusiasm,” Wilkin said. “The beer garden will be rocking, the DJ will be playing, the electric guitarist will be going, it'll all be going on. Hopefully we can provide an intense game to entertain the fans.”
More Wolfpack coverage from Yahoo Sports Canada