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Degree of difficulty escalates for Wolfpack against Super League champions

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The Super League challenge turns up a notch for the winless Toronto Wolfpack on Saturday when the transatlantic rugby league team takes on defending champion St. Helens.

The date with the Saints (2-1-0) completes a demanding introduction to England's top tier for the Wolfpack. After Saturday, Toronto (0-4-0) will have faced the top five teams from last year's standings, with all five fixtures on the road.

While the Wolfpack have lost to Castleford (28-10), Salford (24-16), Wigan (32-10) and Warrington (32-22), coach Brian McDermott sees positives.

"Overall the performance against Warrington was a pretty positive one," he said. "I know this sounds repetitive but it is the truth — we are improving week in week out, getting better ever week.

"A really encouraging performance with the ball. Pretty strong defensively other than some isolated individual errors — some missed tackles. While it's really frustrating to watch those, it's actually encouraging that it wasn't systematic breakdowns or Warrington being really, really good. We just had some blunders and missed tackles in defence, which ultimately cost us the game."

St. Helens have gone 49-6-0 in regular-season play since the start of the 2018 campaign, winning the Grand Final and finishing runner-up in the Challenge Cup final last year.

"They're a very consistent team," said McDermott. "They've been a top team for a long while."

The Saints will be looking to get back to their winning ways after a 20-12 loss to the Sydney Roosters in the World Cup Challenge last time out.

Despite the losses, the Wolfpack have won fans with their free-flowing offence, moving the ball with flair and panache.

"There were large parts of the game against Warrington where they could not handle us," said McDermott. "They couldn't defend what we were trying to do with the ball.

"We saw some of that against Wigan and a better version of that against Warrington ... We're confident about what we can do. The last three teams we've played now, we've pushed them to the brink and had a really good chance of winning each game."

Added McDermott: "We do know if the game's a contest with Saints, we give ourselves a fine chance. The players are really excited about playing the champions this week."

For veteran forward Jon Wilkin, it's a chance to go up against his former team. The 36-year-old spent 16 seasons at St. Helens, playing more than 400 games for the Saints while helping fill their trophy cabinet.

"It was a long time. I committed a large part of my life to that club so it's always be special to me," said Wilkin. "But people kept asking me 'Would it be strange to play against Saints?' I just don't think it is ... It's more strange playing guys you don't know at all. I spent a lot of years competing and training every day with these guys.

"If anything it's more familiar. I don't find it strange at all."

Wilkin needs surgery to clear out his knee but is putting the operation off for a couple of weeks. He says if his knee permits, he will play Saturday.

Toronto started the season with a bare-bones squad of 23 players, which included the on-loan Greg Worthington at Featherstone, due to salary cap issues. Considering rugby league teams dress 17 players for a game — 13 starters plus a four-man interchange bench — there was little room to manoeuvre.

Injuries have exacerbated the roster issue.

The latest casualty is hard-nosed prop Brad Singleton, who ruptured his lateral medial ligament last week at Warrington. Singleton, who ranked second in the league in tackles with 154 after four rounds, needs surgery and will be out four months.

He joins scrum half/hooker James Cunningham on the long-term injured list. Cunningham needed hamstring surgery after the Feb. 13 loss to Wigan and is out for six months.

Forward Darcy Lussick, who has yet to play this season after having hernia surgery, is likely to be available next week with halfback Joe Mellor (hand) possibly available the week after. The team also hopes New Zealand international back Chase Stanley, who has been stuck in Australia due to visa issues, may arrive some time next week.

Worthington was recalled from loan last week and the Wolfpack expect forward Gadwin Springer and winger Matty Russell to be available Saturday after going through concussion protocol.

French international Tony Gigot, on a month-long trial, made his Wolfpack debut last week and impressed McDermott at fullback. Forwards Jack Wells and Ben Kilner arrived this week on a month-long loan from Wigan.

 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 28, 2020.

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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press