By Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press on April 21, 2017.
The Toronto Wolfpack face the stiffest test of their short rugby league history Sunday when they visit the Salford Red Devils in the fifth round of the Ladbrokes Challenge Cup.
Salford stands third in the elite Super League, two divisions and 22 places above the fledgling Wolfpack, rugby league’s first transatlantic team.
“It’s a huge ask,” said Toronto director of rugby Brian Noble, a former Salford coach. “They’re playing very very well. I’ve watched them a few times but I’m confident. I think it’ll be a true barometer or measurement of where we’re at. The players are really excited by it.
“We’re going to need the bounce of the ball and all of those things that go with sudden-death football.”
Prior to a 38-6 loss Monday to Catalan Dragons after a short three-day turnaround, Salford (7-4-0) had won five straight.
“They’re arguably the form team of Super League,” said Toronto assistant coach Simon Finnigan, who played some 50 games for Salford.
The Catalan game featured the Salford debut of Australian star Todd Carney, the 2010 international player of the year whose NRL career was derailed by series of alcohol-related incidents.
Toronto (5-0-0) has been running roughshod in the Kingstone Press League 1, the third tier of English rugby league. A fully professional side, the Wolfpack have outscored their semi-pro opposition 310-37 as they bid for promotion to the second-tier Championship.
The Challenge Cup, a knockout tournament, has provided tougher opposition. Up 30-12 against the London Broncos of the Championship, Toronto had to hang on for a 30-26 win in mid-March.
The Wolfpack have won three straight league matches since then by scores of 48-21, 82-6 and 80-0.
Salford represents a significant jump in class.
“There seems to be a bit of a buzz about the game this week. The training seems to have intensified,” said Toronto prop Adam Sidlow, who played more than 80 games for Salford from 2019 to 2012. “On the calendar it’s a game that we’ve been looking at for a while and we’re really looking forward to it.”
Wolfpack teammates Andrew Dixon and Jake Emmitt also spent time with Salford.
Finnigan said while there was an edge in training earlier in the week, the Wolfpack mood has been business-like.
“We’ve got some pretty experienced boys on our team that have been there, done that, won the trophy,” he said. “These (type of) games they’ve seen before so they’re not going to be ripping trees up in training early in the week. But they obviously know there’s a little bit more edge to it and a little bit more sharpness in training this week.”
Toronto has been strengthening its roster in recent weeks, with Scottish international halfback Ryan Brierley coming over this week from Super League side Huddersfield Giants. Brierley played for Wolfpack head coach Paul Rowley with Leigh Centurions.
Brierley scored 15 tries in 25 appearances for Huddersfield after moving from Leigh in March 2016. His playing time had gone down recently, making a move to Toronto more attractive.
Veteran prop Ryan Bailey and hooker Sean Penkywicz, eligible to play again after his two-year ban for steroids, have also come on board in recent days.
The Salford Cup tie is the last game before the Wolfpack home opener May 6 against Oxford RLFC.
A key home game will come May 20 when the Wolfpack host Barrow Raiders, who have also won all five matches and steamrolled opposition by a 236-30 margin in the Kingstone Press League 1.
Wolfpack CEO Eric Perez calls the Barrow clash a “monstrous” game.
“Even though we’ve assembled this great team … it’s all to play for really still.”
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