By Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press on February 8, 2024.
The Canadian men’s rugby league team is looking forward to a rare international test, March 1 against the USA Hawks in Las Vegas.
And the players are putting aside day jobs and digging into their pocket to represent their country.
The 22-person Canadian contingent headed to Sin City – 18 players, three coaches and a team manager – includes a plumber, welder, personal trainer, wildlife researcher, systems integration consultant, IT specialist, swing-stage rigger, tool-and-die maker, two truck drivers, four teachers and five university/college students.
The players, known as the Wolverines, are committed to the cause. The Canada Rugby League Association (CRLA) helps the best it can, but money is tight.
“It’s pay to play for everybody. Coaching staff and players,” said Wolverines team manager Paul Buchanan. “They’re basically put out of their own pocket anywhere between $1,500 to $2,000 before we even get there relative to flights and hotels, medical insurance, rental vans “¦ All those types of costs are all shared.”
Rugby league is the 13-player version of the code, as opposed to 15-player rugby union. It is played primarily in Australia, England and New Zealand.
The Canada-U. S. game is part of the festivities around the kickoff of Australia’s NRL Telstra Premiership season, which is being held on American soil for the first time. The National Rugby League doubleheader at Allegiant Stadium, home of the Las Vegas Raiders, sees the Manley Sea Eagles take on the South Sydney Rabbitohs and the Sydney Roosters playing the Brisbane Broncos.
The Canada-U. S. contest, at a Las Vegas high school, is scheduled for the day before the NRL doubleheader.
The NRL is also hosting an NFL-style player combine and nines tournament in Las Vegas as well as coaching and referee accreditation courses. The combine offers two male and two female athletes the chance to train with NRL clubs in Australia.
“I don’t think the game has ever been in a stronger position than now to branch out and try to get into new markets,” former Toronto Wolfpack star Ashton Sims told nrl.com.
“The people in North America didn’t really know a lot about rugby league but they understand a sport of such brutality and gladiatorial stoicism. If we can break into that North American market, the possibilities are endless.”
Now retired, the 38-year-old Sims played both in England and the NRL. The Australian-born Fiji international spent the 2018 and ’19 seasons with the Wolfpack, a transatlantic team that rose up through the ranks to England’s Super League before folding during the 2020 season.
Australian-based coach Aaron Zimmerle’s Canada squad last played Nov. 5, 2022, in a 22-10 win over the U.S. in Tampa, Fla. And, thanks in part to the pandemic, that outing was their first action since a 2019 tour of Serbia.
But there are domestic leagues in Ontario and B.C. with a small but dedicated group looking to grow the sport.
Zimmerle held a five-day Wolverines training camp last July in Vancouver, with an East-West game serving to help selection for the Vegas roster
The Canadian women’s team, known as the Ravens, has taken part in the last two editions of the Rugby League World Cup, posting wins in both 2017 in Australia (over Papua New Guinea) and 2021 in England (over Brazil).
The Wolverines have yet to qualify for the men’s tournament.
Zimmerle is using a domestic-based roster for the Las Vegas game. So-called overseas heritage players like former Wolfpack back Rhys Jacks and younger brother Ryley, Australian-based pros who qualify for Canada via a Toronto-born grandfather, are back home training with their domestic clubs.
Both Jacks are playing in the level below the NRL.
Jaeman Salmon, who plays in the NRL for the Canterbury Bulldogs, is also eligible to play for Canada through family bloodlines.
“The domestic guys deserve their opportunity, quite honestly,” said the Australian-born Buchanan, who has been in Canada since 1989 and now calls Grimsby, Ont., home.
Canada is currently ranked 46th in the world while the U.S. is No. 33, rankings skewed by lack of games played.
Zimmerle’s squad, drawn from domestic competitions in B.C. and Ontario, features 10 players from the Wolverines’ 2022 win over the U.S. There are as five players making their Wolverines debut.
The Canada-U. S. rugby league rivalry dates back to 1987 when Canada won 23-10 in Pittsburgh.
The Canadian men’s team was known as the Cougars before the formation of the Canada Rugby League Association in 2010. The Cougars represented Canada between 1987 and 2000 with the American Patriots and then American National Rugby League Tomahawks representing the U.S.
The Canadian team was dormant for 10 years until 2010. Initially known as the Canada Mounties, the national team became the Canada Wolverines in 2011.
Charles Curran, Jason Park, Kyle Yurkiw (Brantford Broncos), Kimi Vinituraga (Vancouver Valley Vipers), Niko Andrionas, Jacob Bourne, Dillon Hamilton, Ben Stothers (Point Grey Thunder), David Astley, Jason Chuck, Lee Keegel, Daniel Martyn (Toronto City Saints), Scyler Dumas (Vancouver Dragons), Colton Carpenter, Luke Toroca (Valley Warriors), Blake Mahovic, Josh Michalik, Gus Murphy (Whistler Wolves).
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 8, 2024.