Toronto set their stall high
19 February 2019 - Written by John Davidson
Toronto Wolfpack majority owner David Argyle certainly knows how to attract publicity.
Few rugby league clubs have earned the same amount of column inches in their mere two year and two month existence. And unlike some colourful, prominent club owners in the UK game, Argyle generally backs up what he says.
The Australian mining boss had social media a flutter on Sunday and Monday when news broke that the Wolfpack are preparing to pull off a big cross-code signing. While the details remain sketchy, the Canadian outfit are apparently looking to sign one rugby union player in the next month, and another union star after the Rugby Union World Cup in Japan this year.
Argyle told a bar of Toronto fans that this player, who would join the Wolfpack, in 2020, is “one of the top five rugby union players in the world”. Cue the speculation frenzy and debate on Facebook and Twitter.
The type of names that have already been bandied about and discussed has been impressive – Ma’a Nonu, Dan Carter, Quade Cooper, Julian Savea, Owen Farrell – and many others.
But one name does stick out, and makes sense on several levels. Sonny Bill Williams. The big Kiwi is off-contract at the Blues and with the All Blacks at the end of this year after the World Cup. He turns 34 in August. He knows rugby league well, was brought up on it and had two very successful spells in the NRL. He won’t be a union player learning a new code like some of the others would be.
Williams is also very marketing-focused. He knows and understands the power of PR and advertising. His brand would align well with an aspirational brand like Toronto’s. He likes new challenges, hence going from Canterbury to France, to the Crusaders to the Chiefs, to the Roosters, back to the Chiefs, then playing in Japan and now to the Blues, not to mention dabbling in boxing as well. He’s made more moves than Warren Buffett.
The 33-year is still one of the biggest stars in either rugby code, worldwide, and would generate huge interest if he came to Super League, granted the Wolfpack get promoted at the of this year. For many people outside of the rugby league bubble, SBW would put Super League on the map. He is also the sort of person who leads from the front, who helps build a culture and sets a good professional example to younger players.
Williams has already spoken about the unrelenting intensity of the NRL compared with the 15-man code. By coming to Super League, instead of going back to the Roosters, he could extend his career for maybe a season or two more than if he returning to the Australian comp.
I’ve been informed that last year a senior Toronto executive met the New Zealander’s agent, Khoder Nasser. What came of it, who knows. But what is undeniable is that the Wolfpack are certainly aiming and dreaming big.
They’ve previously approached the Burgess trio, Sam, George and Tom, about a potential move to Toronto. They are not mucking around, not there to make the numbers or merely compete.
Signing marquees or high-profile players, to help boost them off-the-field, has been their strategy from day one. First Fui Fui Moi Moi, then Ashton Sims, then Dave Taylor and this season Ricky Leutele and Jon Wilkin. Like Manly in the 1970s and 1980s, Brisbane in the 1990s and Wigan in the 1980s and early 1990s, they not only want star power but want to win things too.
Inevitably this has led to anger, complaints, derision and jealously from other club’s fans. Toronto are setting the bar very high. Higher than some others could ever reach.
But considering the low profile of rugby league in the UK, and the lack of wider publicity, getting a massive name from rugby union into the competition could be only be a good thing. Clubs in the northern hemisphere have had a long history of luring union players, from Jonathan Davies to Gareth Thomas, Frano Botica, Scott Gibbs, Scott Quinnell, Alan Tait, Tom van Vollenhoven and many others.
And who wouldn’t, Wolfpack supporter or not, want to see Sonny-Bill strut his stuff in Super League before he hangs up his boots?