This weekend will see Canadian-based side Toronto Wolfpack, who are already the first ever trans-Atlantic professional sports team, also become the first to compete in the Rugby League Challenge Cup.
With Paul Rowley and Brian Noble in the Wolfpack’s coaching staff along with the additions of numerous players with Super League experience Toronto head into their first competitive game against National Conference side Siddal surrounded by hype, but also expectation.
However, despite being the first trans-Atlantic side to compete in the Challenge Cup they aren’t the first non-English side to enter the competition with over a dozen foreign sides trying their hand in the historic competition over the years.
In 2007 Catalans Dragons became the first non-English side to reach the Challenge Cup final when they were defeated 30-8 by St Helens. Incidentally, this was also the first cup final to be played at the new Wembley Stadium.
Catalans had already begun to break down the barriers for sides in countries without a prominent Rugby League history and their 2007 Challenge Cup run was the beginning of an ever-growing trend of globalisation in Rugby League.
But, the Dragons weren’t the first French side to ply their trade in the Challenge Cup.
2001 saw the Villeneuve Leopards progress to the quarter-finals of the competition knocking out established English side Rochdale Hornets in the process. Unfortunately, a 32-0 defeat at the hands of Warrington at Wilderspool ended any hopes of cup heroics.
Four years later and clubs from across the Channel were again making an impact with three sides in the competition – Pia XIII, UTC and Toulouse Olympique. Pia and UTC both reached the last sixteen before defeats to Leeds and Wigan meaning it was left to the latter to make history.
Toulouse overcame Wath Brow Hornets, Doncaster and Widnes on their way to a semi-final clash with Leeds. A 56-18 defeat prevented them making the final but they became the most successful foreign side the competition had ever seen – until Catalans’ 2007 exploits.
Following Toulouse’s remarkable run there was a small influx of non-English sides to the tournament.
Again, Pia XIII, Toulouse, Limoux Grizzlies and Catalans represented France but Celtic Crusaders’ introduction to British Rugby League made room for Welsh representation. The Crusaders first Challenge Cup game also came against foreign opposition as they hosted Russian side Lokomotiv Moscow.
Russian duo Lokomotiv Moscow and Kazan Arrows debuted in the competition in 2001 but Moscow’s fixture against the Crusaders was the first all non-English tie in the Challenge Cup. The Crusaders came out on top in comfortable fashion and Leigh dispatched of the Arrows with an 80-0 victory.
A Russian side hasn’t featured in the competition since 2009 when Lokomotiv Moscow suffered an 82-6 defeat to Leigh.
Celtic Crusaders (now North Wales Crusaders) have continued to compete in the Challenge Cup since their debut back in 2006 but have only managed a 5th round appearance in 2010. Other welsh teams such as the Valley Cougars, Bonymaen Broncos and semi-professional side South Wales Ironmen (formerly known as South Wales Scorpions) have all entered.
Over the past four seasons the Aberdeen Warriors have represented Scotland in the Challenge Cup but are yet to earn a victory with defeats to Pilkington Recs, Skirlaugh and Northumbria University. Another defeat to Pilkington Recs saw them exit this year’s competition in the first round.
Mixed results for non-English sides over the years means it is difficult to completely welcome the idea of a more global competition.
Toulouse and Catalans’ cup runs encourage the idea of a wider competition but heavy defeats Russian, Welsh and Scottish sides would indicate the rest of the world aren’t quite ready to challenge consistently at the top level.
With discussions regarding the World Club Series taking centre stage again in recent weeks it’s important to remember Australia don’t have a knockout competition like the Challenge Cup.
Could Australian sides enter the Challenge Cup instead of the World Club Series? Possibly a far-fetched idea but the possibilities for the competition are endless if the world of Rugby League allows it room to grow.
Whatever the arguments for, or against, more non-English sides entering the competition one thing is for certain and that is that this weekend, no matter the result, Toronto Wolfpack will make history.