Aside from the rather odd trophy awarded to the winners, there was plenty to love about the final Million Pound Game before the Super 8s system is ditched for 2019 and beyond.
Sunday’s, after all, was between the top two teams before the Super 8s kicked off and, as such, there wasn’t the element of jeopardy surrounding livelihoods being on the line in the same manner we have seen in the three previous finals when Super League clubs faced relegation. Instead, Toronto Wolfpack and London Broncos played out what was an exciting opportunity for both – promotion to the promised land of Super League. For the Canadians, it was a chance to earn their second successive promotion in as many years while, for the Broncos, it was the opportunity to return to the top flight after four years away while also stunning the entire sport. This, after all, is a London team who lost their highly rated head coach Andrew Henderson at the end of 2017 and saw key players depart. Danny Ward, promoted to the head coach role after sterling work with the club’s younger teams, had his work seemingly cut out but promptly managed to produce a season even he wouldn’t have dreamt of.
In the previous meeting between the two in the Super 8s, Toronto raced into a healthy lead in very quick time and it left too much for London to do to get back into the contest. It was imperative, then, for the Broncos to ensure their hosts weren’t able to do so – but they nearly did just that. Less than a minute was on the clock when a Blake Wallace kick towered into the Toronto sky and Alex Walker, the Broncos’ full-back, wasn’t able to gather – the only blot in an otherwise impressive performance – under pressure from opposite number Gareth O’Brien. The former Salford star, however, was one of many offside from Wallace’s kick which led to the try the Wolfpack went on to score being ruled out.
The game then saw both teams produce errors as the defences won out. The pair were clearly up for the game and London were keeping their much-feted opponents under wraps. In the midst of a frenetic start, the Broncos’ mercurial half-back Jarrod Sammut – one of their players with Super League experience – kicked an early penalty to give his team a 2-0 lead, one they would hold until half-time. That, however, doesn’t mean the game was short on attacking effort. Both teams had chances to score and, while the visitors were arguably more threatening and purposeful in general, Toronto had the better chances. Mason Caton-Brown, one of the Wolfpack’s late-season recruits, seemed certain to score but his footballing ability saw him come up short after kicking forward from his own half. Unable to continue dribbling to the line under pressure, he proceeded to knock on and relieve the pressure on London.
Late in the first half, Andy Ackers was sin-binned for a late, intentional hit on the impressive Eloi Pellisier, the Broncos’ French hooker. It was one example of indiscipline from the Wolfpack team throughout the match and, much like it did in their Challenge Cup match against Warrington earlier in the year, it didn’t endear neutrals to their cause and hindered their progress in this match. Shortly after Ackers’ dismissal, Kieran Dixon had a chance similar to Caton-Brown’s earlier in the piece. Kicking the ball forward on the deck, he was unable to get it far enough forward to take advantage with his pacy fellow winger slowing the Broncos’ progress. The visitors were unable to make their man advantage pay and the teams were split only by Sammut’s penalty at half-time.
Toronto’s attack was so often met by heroic defence from London, the aspect of their game which was no doubt key to their victory. Early in the second half, the Canadians’ hugely experienced Ashton Sims was held up by the Broncos but, after Sammutt kicked dead into touch, the Wolfpack levelled up the game courtesy of O’Brien’s boot. After London were adjudged to have stolen the ball in the tackle, the full-back landed his twenty-fourth goal since the start of The Qualifiers to tie the game up.
It didn’t remain that way for long, though.
Minutes later, Jack Buchanan connected high with opposite prop Mark Ioane. It looked like a yellow card would have been a fair sanction for the tackle but he escaped further punishment, barring a penalty. That, however, would prove vital as the Maltese Sammutt kicked, amidst boos from home fans, and gave the Broncos another two point lead. That is how it would remain – leaving this as a rare tryless game, all the more bemusing as these two teams were the highest scoring teams in the Betfred Championship. Walker, though, after an incredible performance produced what Sky Sports commentator Phil Clarke described as “the million pound tackle.” As Toronto half back Wallace advanced to the line, Walker somehow managed to get under the ball and remain under it to prevent the Australian from grounding the ball. It was superb and typified the Broncos’ performance – they simply would not let the Wolfpack have things their own way and wouldn’t give away anything at all.
Toronto, for all the fanfare which surrounds them – and they are certainly a good thing for the sport – seemed to be lacking something in attack and they didn’t seem to have a second plan to break down the London defence. They will certainly be in contention for honours in 2019 but, perhaps, with the change of structure, this may have been a better opportunity for them.
As the clock ticked down, huge London forward Tom Spencer produced a charge akin to a battering ram and promptly left Toronto’s Bob Beswick in trouble on the deck. The time taken to give the experienced hooker treatment must have seemed like an eternity to the Broncos as they aimed to close the game out but, when the game resumed, it was left to Dixon to run the clock down and kick the ball dead, prompting incredible celebrations from the capital club and their small army of travelling fans. Toronto’s players fell to the turf as if in shock at what had happened and the rugby league world was no doubt surprised to see the Wolfpack lose a game in which they were such big favourites.
They, however, will go again in the second tier in 2019 while London will now have the off-season to prepare for a top-flight return. After their performance on Sunday night, they may well find themselves with many wishing them well, possibly even becoming some fans’ second team.
Toronto Wolfpack: O’Brien, Caton-Brown, Rawsthorne, Wheeler, Russell, McCrone, Wallace, Lussick, Beswick, Sims, Dixon, Whiting, Emmitt
Replacements: Buchanan, Ackers, Sidlow, Higson
Sin bin: Ackers (32)
London Broncos: Walker, Williams, Kear, Hellewell, Dixon, Pitts, Sammut, Evans, Pelissier, Ioane, Gee, Lovell, Hindmarsh
Replacements: Spencer, Battye, Butler, Davies