The contrast between Toronto and Featherstone could not be greater.
One, a bustling cosmopolitan metropolis with a population of more than 2.9million. The other, a former Yorkshire mining village, home to around 15,000 people.
Yet this Saturday, the respective rugby league teams of these polar opposite environments will meet to fight for a place in Super League with neither having been there before.
Sure, Featherstone have played in the top flight during their long and proud history but never in the summer era. While neighbours Castleford and Wakefield have enjoyed relative success in the meantime, Rovers have plodded on, punching above their weight in the Championship and dreaming big without ever quite making the leap to Super League.
It’s a finish to the Championship season few could have predicted as recently as a month ago. True, Toronto were always expected to be the team which cruised through the division. Their expensively-assembled squad led the way from day one, and as one of the few full-time clubs outside Super League they had a huge advantage over their rivals. The eight-hour transatlantic trip faced by their opponents is another considerable advantage.
As the team that finished top after the regular season, Toronto needed to win just one game to reach the Grand Final and, handily for them, it will be at home too.
But wait, there’s a twist. Only one team have ever beaten Toronto on their home ground in Championship competition, and that was Featherstone last season. Confidence will not be an issue for Ryan Carr and his players.
Featherstone’s pathway to this point has been decidedly more difficult than the Wolfpack’s. After finishing fifth, they needed to win away at the three teams that finished immediately above them to progress - Leigh Centurions, York City Knights and Toulouse Olympique. Every one of those challenges was met, and their most recent success in the south of France was truly exceptional. It is this improvement in form under Carr, their highly-rated Australian coach, which should have removed any complacency from the Canadians.
But let’s not forget, Toronto have been here before. Last year they were overwhelming favourites to beat London in the Million Pound Game yet were beaten 4-2 in Canada. Under former Leeds coach Brian McDermott, Toronto finished the regular season 12 points clear of second-placed Toulouse, the only team to beat them in 2019.
The Wolfpack have been in existence for only three years, starting in League One and working their way up. Their inclusion in the British competition has been the subject of much debate since and will continue to be a bone of contention with many traditionalists.
This is a fixture which looks to have split neutrals down the middle. Having a team in Canada, as well as France, makes Super League a truly global competition; Toronto is a vibrant, multi-cultural city where sport is an important part of everyday life.
While rugby league may struggle to command the kind of coverage that ice hockey, baseball and soccer enjoys, it has made notable inroads and enjoys its fair share of column inches from a curiously receptive sports media. Super League fans from England may be tempted by the idea of taking a mini-break in Toronto but is it just too expensive for supporters already shelling out for trips to Catalans Dragons, the Magic Weekend and the Challenge Cup Final?
And then there is Featherstone, the David to Toronto’s Goliath. They are a proud club which enjoys an important place in the heart of its community. The fans revel in the nickname ‘The Flatcappers’ and have dreamed of a spot on the sport’s top table for more than 25 years. Rovers’ promotion would mean the return of derbies against Castleford and clashes against their ‘big city’ neighbours Wakefield and Leeds.
They could barely be more different except in one aspect. For both, promotion would be the perfect ending to a fairytale season.
Main image: SWpix