The Toronto Wolfpack made their Super League debut on the weekend. After three seasons in the lower divisions, the Wolfpack’s first game in Leeds against the Castleford Tigers resulted in a quasi-respectable but messy 28-10 loss.
Still, one result is one result and not necessarily informative on its own, disappointing though it may be. For those of us in favour of rugby league expansion, the threat of the Toronto Wolfpack being relegated at the end of the season is realistic and concerning. It would be a serious, possibly fatal, setback for the franchise. Toronto’s relegation would also push Super League further down in to the parochial quagmire that makes up the bulk of its ever-decreasing audience.
With so much hanging in the balance, will Toronto survive the 2020 Super League season?
In the current Super League format, to avoid being relegated back to the Championship, Toronto simply have to not finish last on the ladder.
The average last place finishing team in Super League, from 1996 to 2019, averaged a winning percentage of .185. Over a 29 game season, this would translate to about 5.4 wins. More importantly, the average second last place finishing team, over the same time frame, averaged a winning percentage of .270 or about 7.8 wins. Over the last five seasons, that average has risen to .317 or 9.2 wins.
Last season was unusual, with four teams at the bottom of the table separated by a single win. London’s 10-19 record would have been good enough to avoid finishing last, and being relegated under the current format, for all but two Super League seasons, 2007 and 2015. It was the best winning percentage of any last placed finishing team in history and unlikely to be repeated again.
We can say with some confidence that a minimum target of ten wins will normally see a team safe from relegation.
Now promoted to Super League, the question is how many games can the Wolfpack reasonably expect to win against professional opposition? It’s far too early to be undertaking a simulation, as it will be half a dozen rounds before the form Elo ratings take shape. We could use class but it would likely tell us the same as it did for the Challenge Cup: St Helens are out in front, chased by Wigan and Warrington.
Toronto’s own resume against Super League teams is not terribly instructive. 2017’s Challenge Cup campaign was brought to an end by Salford in round 5, losing 29-22. The Wolfpack went one step further in 2018, exiting in round 6 after a heavy defeat in Warrington, 66-10. The 2018 Super 8s Qualifiers ended with the Wolfpack on 5-2, the same as Salford, Leeds and Hull Kingston Rovers, and included a shock 17-16 upset of the Rhinos.
If we can assess the gap between leagues, we might be able to gain some insights to the relative strengths of the teams. This is a question I attempted to answer for the GRLFC Rankings. I used a block discount of 415 points between first grade and second grade, although the gap between the Championship and Super League is only 295 points, as Super League has its own handicap against the NRL.
In 2019, Toronto were the top ranked Championship team, with a score of 1779. The Super League clubs averaged a score of 1902. A 120-odd point discrepancy, suggests that Toronto will end up with an approximate winning percentage of .300, close enough to the 10-19 record that should see them safe. Further, the construction of the rating system probably understands Toronto and/or overstates the ability of the Super League clubs.
Outside of the Challenge Cup and pre-season trials, we don’t see top flight clubs playing off directly against second division challengers very often but we can use the Super 8s Qualifiers to more reliably calculate the gap in recent history. Contested over four seasons from 2015 to 2018, the bottom four of Super League would play a round robin series against the top four of the Championship. The top three teams at the end of this were promoted or reinstated to the Super League, with the fourth spot being decided in a play-off Million Pound Game between fourth and fifth. The loser of the MPG and the bottom three were returned to the Championship.
While the Super 8 format was in use, there were 116 fixtures, of which 26 were between Super League teams, 25 between Championship rivals and the remainder contested between divisions. Unsurprisingly, the Super League team won 51 of 65 matches for a .784 winning percentage. Pythagorean expectation backs this up: Super League teams scored 2331 points to the Championship’s 1137, for an estimated winning percentage of .796.
In Elo rating terms, a team with an estimated 80% winning percentage is equivalent to a difference of about 240 points, not far off the estimate used in the GRLFC Rankings. The Wolfpack maintained an average form rating of 1640 through their 2019 Championship campaign. Should they manage a similar effort, the Super League equivalent should see them sit around 1400. Below average for sure, but not disastrous. At 1400, we would expect to see Toronto win about 36% of their games or finishing somewhere between ten and eleven wins.
Having said that, the lowest season-long average form ratings from each of the last five season were Wakefield Trinity in 2015 (1365) and 2016 (1426), Leigh in 2017 (1414), Salford in 2018 (1423) and London in 2019 (1383). In other words, despite the Pack’s dominance of the 2019 Championship, they should be expecting to be in the ballpark of those teams, at or near the bottom of the table.
While the numbers look okay, if anxiety-inducingly tight, there’s plenty that could go wrong. A squad of only twenty-three players is vanishingly small for a twenty-nine round campaign plus maybe finals plus a couple of rounds of the Challenge Cup. NRL clubs sometimes struggle to see out a twenty-four game schedule with thirty players. Compounding this, the Wolfpack have no further room in the salary cap, having paid overs for fringe first graders to help establish the club, unless the RFL is unimaginably kind and grants a 5% dispensation for the increased cost of living in Toronto, like London’s 10% dispensation, despite the fact that the club is based in Manchester and its roster is a motley crue of decidedly non-Canadian players and the season is already underway and the other clubs hate it. Loans and a dual-registration arrangement with
Widnes Rochdale may alleviate some of these problems, but there is a fundamental issue with the composition of the squad.
The ownership and financial arrangements of the club are far from transparent and if David Argyle or his partners decide to leave, then that would be it for the club unless a cannabinoid company tips in more cash. It’s still not clear if the announced purchase of 25% of London Skolars has actually resulted in any money changing hands. As if that weren’t enough, visa issues threaten the ability of any non-British players to ply their trade. Basically, it turns out that the Wolfpack operation is held together with duct tape, just like every rugby league club in the world.
Often the result of the exercises ends up confirming my own biases. Indeed, the gap between the relegation trapdoor and Toronto is much closer than I thought prior to undertaking this analysis. I figured the Wolfpack would miss the finals but comfortably avoid relegation. The margins are much finer than that and proof that sometimes it helps to look at the numbers.
If Sunday’s game is indicative, the pieces are there for a dangerous offence, if only Hakim Miloudi would settle down and the rest of the team tightens up their passing. More concerning is the goal line defence, which was not seriously pressured by Castleford and the Tigers still found an abundance of holes. If they can come together, I think Toronto will be OK this year and Hull KR, Wakefield or Huddersfield are going to have to take one for the good of rugby league.