TORONTO — The Toronto Wolfpack are on the verge of punching their ticket to the Super League and after waiting all year for the opportunity, the club is supremely confident they won’t miss out this time.
Toronto was defeated 4-2 by the London Broncos in the Million Pound Game last year, which denied the team a berth in England’s top-tier competition.
While the playoff format has been revamped, Toronto’s entire season has been laser focused on earning a promotion and after posting a 27-1 record, the Featherstone Rovers are the only team standing in the way, as both clubs prepare for Saturday’s Grand Final.
For some players, the moment might prove to be overwhelming, a notion the Wolfpack players easily dismissed.
“We haven't got any young kids, so as players we've probably had a taste of big games. I think we all know what to expect, there'll be nothing new come the weekend, the boys will be ready to go,” Wolfpack fullback Gareth O’Brien said.
O’Brien holds the rare distinction of being part of the Wolfpack’s leadership group, while also carrying on as a mainstay from the 2018 team. The 27-year-old has played rugby league at the highest level, most notably for Super League powerhouse St. Helens, and has been outright dominant for the Wolfpack, earning a Player of the Year nomination alongside teammates Jon Wilkin and Andy Ackers.
Wilkin, Ricky Leutele, Bodene Thompson, Gadwin Springer, Joe Mellor and Tom Olbison all joined the Wolfpack from either the Super League or Australia’s top-tier National Rugby League, giving this year’s outfit an impenetrable veteran presence.
The weight of last year’s upset has been a constant theme for the Wolfpack but they’ve done everything they can to render the 2018 season a distant memory.
“Mentally, it's just another game. I think once when you start thinking into things too much, you start getting them nerves that you don't really want. Obviously, we're going to have some nerves coming into a final, and what happened last year and things like that. We're favourites, but that doesn't mean anything,” Wolfpack wing Matty Russell said.
Wolfpack head coach Brian McDermott raved about his team’s competitiveness, leadership and resilience throughout the season, praising his team for getting over last year’s heartbreak.
“Everything's been sweet and certainly not all the performances have been what we'd like, but that's probably being ultra-critical,” McDermott said. “We've won a lot of games, we've only lost one game so far. I think if I can just boast and stand in front of you and say 'throughout the whole year, we've lost one game,' I think that's remarkable, I think that's quite an achievement already.
“There's a certain amount of drive for the players. For those that were here last year, I'm pleased to tell you that they have as much ambition to go again, which sometimes doesn't happen when you get so close and fail. They've got back up and they're having a go again.”
McDermott’s disposition is also somewhat different from his players. While O’Brien and Russell said they’re treating Saturday’s contest as any other game, McDermott certainly invited the spectacle and the weight of the team’s potential historical accomplishment is something he wants to celebrate.
“Even for our veteran players, this is big. We're hopefully going to be the first transatlantic team in rugby league - and I think of any sport - that's going to be based in one country and playing in a competition across the Atlantic, this is big,” McDermott said “I think we're on the cusp of doing something really, really special and because the club got so close to it last time, it probably made a big deal of it. I don't know if they're making it as big a deal as it should be right now, this is pretty big.”
“So even for the players in my dressing room that have won a couple of Grand Finals, both in Australia and in England, this is a big deal for them. They can get nervous about this game, they want to achieve this, they're as nervous (as anyone) and they've got the giddiness, if you like, the excitement about this as any of the young fellas.”
Although the Wolfpack are verge of pulling off a genuinely special season, both for overcoming last year’s crushing loss, and a campaign where they’ve been significantly better than anyone else in their division, McDermott is making it clear they still have to go out and get the win, warning against complacency.
“I'm not playing this game down at all. But at the same time, treating any final, that can't be the number one, just the excitement of the game, we've got a job to do. Come game day, we'll put all the excitement to one side, we'll keep it pretty emotionless and just get the job done,” McDermott.
For a veteran group, both in age and experience, this shouldn’t be much of a problem.
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