‘Sky is the limit’ Wolfpack pioneers back Vegas to kick start game in USA

Former Toronto Wolfpack star Ashton Sims and coach Paul Rowley believe the NRL’s Vegas venture has the potential to grow the game in North America and unearth a new pool of playing talent.

The NRL will conduct an NFL-style talent combine and host a Vegas 9s tournament, along with coaching and refereeing courses, in the lead up to the season opening double-header at Allegiant Stadium on March 2.

After the combine, two male and two female athletes will be offered the opportunity to showcase their talents to NRL clubs in Australia, and Sims has no doubt there will be players capable of making the transition.

“We used to do a lot of stuff at the university in Toronto and some cross-code promotion with [Canadian Football League team] the Toronto Argonauts,” said Sims, who played for the Wolfpack in 2018 and 2019 after 12 NRL seasons and three in England.

“They are just incredibly built – big, strong, fast, evasive and agile – but obviously without the skills you learn from having grown up playing rugby league, like catch, pass and tackle technique.

“But if you put the right time, energy, resources and coaching into them, which it looks like the NRL is doing, you are going into a market where I truly believe the sky is the limit.”

Rowley, who now coaches Salford, was the Wolfpack’s foundation coach in 2017 as they begun a three-year campaign to rise from Britain’s third tier to Super League.

The former England hooker outlined his belief that the NRL’s five-year investment in Vegas could lead to a lucrative broadcast deal and the development of a US domestic competition along similar lines to Major League Soccer, where Lionel Messi now plays.

“The Sin City is hosting the world’s best rugby league players showcasing the most American sport not played in America,” Rowley wrote on LinkedIn.

“As the inaugural coach of the world’s only ever trans-Atlantic rugby league team, I feel qualified to share my opinion on the opportunity that presents itself and wonder what the objective actually is. I see two realistic goals:

“To tap into the USA’s sporting riches and secure enough interest to land what would be rugby league’s most lucrative TV deal – delivering the world’s toughest rugby league competition to an American audience through their TV screens.

“To create a thriving American league that presents another sporting pathway for USA’s young athletes – of which there are many.”

Despite rugby league being a little-known sport in Canada, the Wolfpack attracted home crowds of up to 10,000 at Toronto’s Lamport Stadium before COVID-19 ended the club’s Super League ambitions in 2020.

Sims said the game appealed to Americans and its similarities with gridiron, as both codes grew out of rugby union, made it easy for them to understand.

“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,” Sims said.

“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.

“That could be the start of taking the game into all different parts of the globe and changing rugby league from just being a sport played in Australia, England, New Zealand and the Pacific heartland to a real global game.”

Rowley believes that once a production line of talent is developed in North America, the game will take off in the USA.

“To strategically position a moderate number of teams and create rivalries across America with a long-term reality that America will produce its own rugby league players,” Rowley said.

“Initially the world’s best players don’t need to grace America as the product is less scrutinised and the raw ingredients demonstrated by our 2nd-tier players will produce a product that America will love.

“The TV deal will follow, the world’s best players will follow – as seen in soccer’s pathway. There is, of course, the possibility that USA becomes the world’s best and eventually call the shots.

“Exciting times either way and the opportunity to grow our sport is there. Crudely put, but in reality, huge financial benefits are on offer.

“More importantly the world will finally see what the rugby league community already knows – it’s the greatest game of all. I’ve seen it work, I know what it looks like.”

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