TORONTO — Less than 30 months after holding up a Wolfpack jersey before a fairly dubious audience at the franchise's opening news conference, Toronto coach Paul Rowley is on the eve of leading the transatlantic rugby league team into the elite Super League.
With some assistance from London and Toulouse, the Wolfpack set the stage Saturday for a stirring finale in the Super 8s Qualifiers next week.
Toronto moved into third place in the promotion table with a tense 20-12 win over Widnes, relegating the Vikings after a seven-year stay in the top-flight.
The Super 8s Qualifiers pit the bottom four teams in the Super League (Leeds Rhinos, Hull Kingston Rovers, Salford Red Devils and Widnes) against the top four in the second-tier Betfred Championship (Toronto, London Broncos, Toulouse Olympique and Halifax RLFC). The top three in the table secure automatic promotion while No. 4 plays No. 5 in the so-called "Million Pound Game" to see who joins them.
The promotion and relegation system will change next year with a simple one-up and one-down format.
The standings tightened considerably Saturday as London (3-3-0) held on for an 11-8 win over Salford (4-2-0) and Toulouse (3-3-0) won 34-23 over Hull KR (4-2-0).
On Sunday, Leeds (4-1-0) plays at Halifax (0-5-0).
With Halifax and Widnes out of contention, six teams are chasing four promotion slots. And the drama could be spread over four days in the final round of games.
Salford hosts Toulouse on Thursday while Leeds entertains Toronto on Friday. Halifax visits London on Saturday before Hull KR host Widnes.
"It just gets more exciting by the minute. Or stressful, whichever way you want to look at it," said Rowley, a former England hooker.
"As I spoke to the boys, we're still masters of our own destiny. We can concentrate on what we can do ... We've got a tough ask now going to Leeds but it's one that we're excited about and whatever happens anywhere else, that will be."
Added Wolfpack forward Cory Paterson: "It's all on our shoulders."
Anything is possible.
The best-case scenario is a win in Leeds leading to automatic promotion. The worst case is a loss which, coupled with wins by Toulouse, London and Hull KR, could leave the Wolfpack out of contention in sixth spot.
The middle case has Toronto in the Million Pound Game on Oct. 7.
In case of a tie in the standings, it will come down to point difference with Toronto currently at plus-17 ahead of Hull KR (five), Toulouse (zero) and London (minus-10).
Saturday marked Toronto's first win over a Super League side in five tries and it didn't come easy.
Down 12-10, Blake Wallace cut through three tacklers from close-range in the 57th minute to put the Wolfpack ahead 16-12 with the conversion. Gareth O'Brien added penalties in the 67th and 70th minutes to stretch the lead to 20-12.
Toronto's defence then rose to the occasion, blunting desperate Widnes attacks.
The game was played on a mild 14-degree Celsius afternoon at Lamport Stadium with some of the season-high 8,281 crowd on hand wearing western gear as part of the Country Day promotion.
Paterson and Matty Russell also scored tries for Toronto. O'Brien kicked two conversions and two penalties. The Toronto fullback, normally on target, also missed a conversion and two penalties.
Joe Mellor and Chris Dean scored tries for Widnes, which trailed 10-8 at the half. Krisnan Inu added a conversion and a penalty.
Widnes coach Francis Cummins said Toronto, helped by its stronger bench, deserved the win. Ultimately, he said, his side did not have the quality needed.
Paterson said he felt for the Viking players. "They were playing for their livelihoods so you could definitely sense their desperation."
Widnes finished last in the Super League at 3-20-0 and lost their first four Super 8s Qualifiers.
Toronto has already beaten Halifax, London and Toulouse. It lost to Salford and Hull KR.
Toronto, which started in the third-tier League 1 last year, has lost just seven of 58 competitive matches (49-7-2) over two years, with four of those setbacks at the hands of Super League opposition in Challenge Cup or playoff play.
The only other losses have come to York City Knights in League 1 play last year and London and Featherstone Rovers in the Championship this year.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press