TORONTO — The Toronto Wolfpack, who have not played since March 11 due to the global pandemic, may not have New Zealand star Sonny Bill Williams and other marquee players available when the sport returns next month.
At issue are the visas that allow Williams and six other imports — Australia's Josh McCrone, Darcy Lussick and Blake Wallace, Australian-born Samoan international Ricky Leutele and New Zealand's Chase Stanley and Bodene Thompson — to play in England.
The visas allow for six months in England over a year, which not a problem when the transatlantic rugby league team is spending part of the season in Canada. But the pandemic has kept the players in England and the visas are slated to expire at the end of the month.
The Super League and Toronto (0-6-0) are scheduled to resume play Aug. 2 behind closed doors in England.
"We're still working with Super League and the RFL (Rugby Football League) to see whether there's some other solution," said Wolfpack CEO and chairman Bob Hunter.
Hunter acknowledges he doubts whether the visa issue can be fixed in time. That leaves another question.
"Can we put together a quality team that can be competitive week-in, week-out, if we don't have the seven overseas players?" said Hunter.
That would seem a resounding No given Toronto's record with a full squad so far in its first season in the top tier.
Because the Wolfpack are Canadian-owned, they require different visas than overseas players employed by English clubs.
The seven players in question are key members of Toronto's small 23-man roster. Rugby league teams dress 17 players, including 13 starters. And injuries could be more common as Super League looks to a condensed season to get as much of the 2020 season in as possible.
Wolfpack coach Brian McDermott has said his team is up against the salary cap because it has to pay a premium to get players willing to play out of two continents.
Toronto has had visa issues in the past with both Lussick and Stanley, at different times, stranded overseas while awaiting the necessary documents to get back into England.
The Wolfpack already face a host of problems. Travel and other pandemic-related restrictions likely mean that the team will play few if any games in Toronto this year — which means missing out on gate and other revenue from Lamport Stadium.
The Wolfpack do not get a cut of the TV deal with British broadcaster Sky under terms of its current deal with Super League.
And because the team is Canadian-owned, it does not have access to any of the 16-million-pound ($27.3 million) emergency loan the British government has offered to the Rugby Football League during the pandemic.
Toronto is slated to play Hull Kingston Rovers on Aug. 2, kicking off a triple-header at a yet-to-be announced English venue. The other games are St. Helens against Catalans Dragons and Huddersfield Giants against Leeds Rhinos.
The Super League has yet to announce the rest of the revamped schedule.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 14, 2020.
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