Toronto Wolfpack coach Paul Rowley expects his team to have a target on its back next year in the second-tier Championship.
Just as it did in its inaugural 2017 rugby league campaign in the Kingstone Press League 1.
"Everybody's best performance is saved for Toronto," Rowley said Thursday on a visit to Toronto. "We're the team that everybody loves to hate and puts their best foot forward against us.
"That will still be maintained among the Championship. Now we're in among the big boys."
The Wolfpack are seen as the spoiled rich kids in some rugby league circles, a handle that clearly irritates Rowley given his team's small roster and challenging travel schedule.
Rugby's first transatlantic team, the Wolfpack had to start life in the third tier of English rugby league this year. The only fully professional side in the division, Toronto easily won promotion with a 20-1-1 record that saw it outscore the opposition 1,164 to 243.
Toronto's ultimate goal is to win promotion to the elite Super League.
The Wolfpack will get a good sense of where they stand Feb. 4 in the season opener at Leigh Centurions, Rowley's former team which is newly relegated from the Super League.
The Wolfpack will be up against other fully professional sides like London Broncos and Toulouse Olympique XIII in the Championship. Other teams are all but full-time, according to Rowley.
"The top half (of the Championship) is (like) bottom-half Super League," said the former England hooker. "The environments that we'll be going to are challenging. You've got grounds with slopes, tight grounds, hostile crowds once again in northern England.
"I'm not expecting a jump in league to suddenly improve our penalty count in terms of favourability with referees. We're always going to be on a loser with that. But you know what? We know what cards we're dealt. We've got a tight circle and we're inspired by those sort of situations."
Toronto has already signed seven new players in preparation for next year: Australians Dave Taylor and Josh McCrone, Albanian-born Olsi Krasniqi, Fiji's Ashton Sims and England's Joe Westerman, Tom Armstrong and Andy Ackers.
Gone are captain Craig Hall, Steve Crossley, Tom Dempsey, Shaun Pick, Rhys Jacks and Sean Penkywicz.
Rowley expects to have a 25-man roster again this season but this time stocked top to bottom with established players. American Ryan Burroughs and Victoria's Quinn Ngawati may be loaned out to get more playing time.
Camp has already started at the Wolfpack's new training ground — the Manchester Metropolitan University's Platt Lane Sports Complex, formerly used by the Manchester City soccer club.
Rowley describes the new facility as fantastic.
The club had previously trained at the Brighouse Rangers facility some 55 kilometres northeast of Manchester.
Rowley said a change in captain was planned before Hall left the club to join Leigh. Early candidates include Adam Sidlow and Sims.
"We'll write nobody off and we'll pencil nobody in just yet," said Rowley.
Not everyone is in camp yet. McCrone and Taylor are due to arrive in December and January, respectively.
Sims is at the Rugby League World Cup with Fiji, which faces host Australia in semifinal action Friday. Winger Liam Kay's World Cup journey with Ireland is done but he has been given some extra time off because of the tournament — and to rest a minor groin strain.
Rowley has other injury concerns.
Burroughs, who played for the U.S. at the World Cup, has a torn hamstring. And forwards Jake Emmitt, Dan Fleming, Richard Whiting and Sidlow are all sidelined by a torn calf.
"That's on my to-do list, when I get back from Toronto, to deal with why that's happened," Rowley said of the spate of calf injuries. "I'm not pleased about it at all."
With Lamport Stadium getting new artificial turf, Toronto will play its first 11 games on the other side of the Atlantic. The first home game is scheduled for April 28 and there is a chance it and several others may have to be played elsewhere locally unless the improvements are finished ahead of schedule.
"I know I speak for all our players when I say we just can't wait to get back here," said Rowley.
"I landed this time and it felt like coming home," he added.
Rowley welcomed the improvements to Lamport but said the team had no complaints.
"We'll play on a car pack ... I think we've got a pretty humble group," he said. "We've got no prima donnas who have any high demands. We don't expect rose petals thrown on the floor when we arrive at the stadium.
"We're here, we turn up, we play the game, we speak to everybody, shake hands and go home. And that's it. That's our job."
In search of good weather, the team is looking at holding part of its training camp either in the U.S. or Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands. Pre-season plans also call for a friendly with Bradford and a possible scrimmage against a Super League club.
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