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Toronto Wolfpack’s rise and demise: unpaid players and a cautionary tale | Toronto Wolfpack

The outlook of the sporting world has changed so much over the past two years that the demise of Toronto Wolfpack in the summer of 2020 has barely figured in rugby league. But there are a group of men who cannot forget. They cannot forget how a club that seemed to have limitless potential descended into anarchy, and left them without life-changing sums of money.

For almost two years, the players and staff of what proved to be the final Toronto squad have been trying without success to recoup six months of unpaid salaries. They are still looking for answers. “We aren’t Premier League footballers,” the club’s former winger, Matty Russell, who now plays for Toulouse, says. “This is money that guys need to feed their families which has just never materialized. We need it.”

It is almost two years to the day since Toronto withdrew from the 2020 Super League season. That year started with promise and hype aplenty, headlined by the signing of the former All Black Sonny Bill Williams. The world would change forever within weeks of their debut season in the top flight though thanks to the Covid-19 pandemic, but that was merely the start of the Wolfpack’s off-field problems.

Citing catastrophic financial impact caused by the pandemic, Wolfpack pulled out of Super League in July as the competition planned to restart, never to appear in the domestic game again. A reincarnation of the Wolfpack has since appeared in the North American domestic leagues under new ownership but the players who were contracted for 2020 – and beyond, in many cases – have still not received the outstanding six-month salaries owed to them from two years ago .

Time and again they have been promised the money would arrive by the club’s former owner, David Argyle, who has not responded to this reporter’s persistent efforts to contact him about the missing wages. The money has never materialized. With the help of the Rugby League Players’ Association, a scheduled payment date of October is now tentatively planned and the union has said that if there are any more delays, it will not hesitate to take the matter to the courts.

“We are, along with the Rugby Football League, at a stage where we will have no choice but to take legal action should there be any more delays,” the RLPA’s chief, Garreth Carvell, said. “All clubs need to watch this situation because when it comes to our members being owed wages, there is no way we will give up fighting for them, no matter how long it takes. It’s been a long slog but, if David sticks to his latest promises, it looks like our members will get paid towards the back end of this year.”

Toronto Wolfpack's team mascot prowls the touchline at the Lamport Stadium before a match against London Broncos.
Toronto Wolfpack’s team mascot prowls the touchline at the Lamport Stadium before a match against London Broncos. Photograph: NurPhoto/Getty Images

Some of the players waiting for that money have been given false hope before. Gareth O’Brien is, by his own admission, one of the lucky ones. Some of the Wolfpack players still owed money struggled to find contracts elsewhere in Super League and had to go part-time. Others walked away from the game altogether. O’Brien ultimately secured a deal at Castleford Tigers, where he still plays today. His frustration has not diminished, though.

“It got to a year down the line and you had to write off that money in your head for the good of your own sanity,” he says. “You were just tormenting yourself over and over again. I’ve tried not to stress about it because I’ve got a contract at Castleford, and I can support my family. Others weren’t so fortunate. Six months wages, regardless of the salary you’re on, is a lot of money, isn’t it?

“It doesn’t reflect well on us as a sport. I don’t know who the blame lies with either. Is it the governing body? Is it the owners? There’s nobody you can definitely point the finger at as a player and that’s frustrating. Something has gone wrong, though. Was the proper due diligence done on the owners? It’s shambolic, really. Absolutely embarrassing.”

There has been some progress of late, with players paid a “goodwill” sum of £1,150. But when you consider the average salary for a Super League player is £70,000 it is understandable how that initial payment does not even skim the surface. “It’s quite embarrassing for us as a sport that it’s dragged on this long,” Russell, who dropped down to the Championship with Leigh before signing with Toulouse, says.

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“Lads are owed extraordinary sums of money: it’s really quite sad and it’s been so stressful. Some lads were on very good money at Toronto and they went from that to absolutely nothing. One of the lads we played with had two years left on a big contract and he just walked away from the game. The union are doing their absolute best, but we just have to play the waiting game a bit longer.

“We’re used to that now, but it doesn’t make it easier for guys who were left unemployed. It’s been a very tough period.”

The end could now finally be in sight, however. While many have consigned Toronto’s brief sojourn to the annals of history, nobody in this game should overlook the labors one group of players have had to endure, merely for what they are owed. It is a rugby league story should never be forgotten.

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