The Toronto Wolfpack have been making big strides recently, adding some real quality to their ranks both on and off the field and are creating quite a buzz as they set out on their quest to become the first Transatlantic sports team.
By Danny Roberts | @DannyRoberts74
Images | Davey Wilson
One thing that the team are looking to do is help to grow the sport in North America and are seeking to give opportunities to homegrown athletes. The Wolfpack are offering open tryouts in a hope to find some real, hidden talent, similar to a tactic employed by the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles in 1976 under then-rookie Head Coach, Dick Vermeil. From these tryouts came the signing of Vince Papale and due to the heartwarming nature of this tale, the subsequent Disney film Invincible starring Mark Wahlberg to further publicise his story.
Last Tackle Media are producing a documentary that will capture the development of the Wolfpack and filming players in matches and tryouts. The Wolfpack, led by Head Coach Paul Rowley, Director of Rugby Brian Noble and ex-professional turned actor Adam Fogerty will fly to five cities on a six week tour, taking in Toronto, Philadelphia, Tampa, Kingston and Vancouver. Everything will be filmed and the trials and tribulations that it takes to Run with the Pack will be on show for all to see.
One player that the spotlight will be on during the tryouts will be 25 year old, Casey Clark.
Clark, could well be rugby league’s answer to Papale. The utility forward is something of a veteran in the USARL having played for two of the league’s most dominant teams, Jacksonville Axemen and Philadelphia Fight; as well as gaining a number of caps for the national team.
If you ask USARL Communication Director, Steve Williams, Casey Clark is ready to make the step up and join the pack. “Casey has been in devastating form this season and has been consistently playing at the highest level. Having won his third title with the Fight this year, he is ready for the next stage of his career. For players like Casey, the Wolfpack leap would be a relatively smooth transition and he would really complement the top talent that the side has already recruited.”
Williams went on to praise the physical attributes that Casey has at his disposal, stating that he would not shy away from the physical demands that professional rugby league would require of him. “Casey is a terrific open play runner, but his greatest strength is his heavy hitting defense. His bone crunching tackles remind me of Trevor Gillmeister, who was more affectionately known as The Axe.”
Comparisons to players of Gillmeister’s calibre after just 5 years of playing the sport will come as a shock to Casey who only gave the game a go to see if he liked it. He said:
“My first season of rugby league was in 2011 when I played a season with the Jacksonville Axemen. The reason I went there was because my brother had moved there from Montana while his girlfriend was going to law school at Florida Coastal. I had watched a lot of league and had a lot of friends that played while I lived in new Zealand but that was the first time I had played. I mostly just wanted to give it a go and see how I went and I’ve been playing ever since.”
The challenge that the Wolfpack will have in finding the right caliber of player is that most of the players involved in the sport in North America haven’t been brought up on the sport like their British and Australasian counterparts, so the core knowledge isn’t ingrained into them.
However, the importance of the formation of the Toronto Wolfpack is not lost on the domestic players and Clark is very excited to see how the whole endeavour pans out.
“The Toronto team is a huge deal. It’ll be the first time many domestic players will be introduced to a fully professional environment. The players would finally be able to have the resources and especially the time to really focus on their skills and the game. It would even give kids or young up and coming players something to strive for that would pay off in the end. Literally. I mean yes kids could strive to play professionally in England or Australia, but to the average American kid growing up those places are so far away it’s like they’re other planets. The idea of just going there is daunting but the idea of going to play a sport that most Americans don’t know exists is almost unfathomable.”
It is clear that Casey Clark is gaining some followers in the domestic competition but for the boy from Montana it’s never been about making it to a certain level, mainly because before the formation of the Wolfpack, playing professionally was just a dream.
“I’m not really too sure how high a level I could go to. Obviously everyone daydreams about playing at the highest possible level but I’ve always just tried to put in as much work as I can to get as high as I can. So I guess we’ll have to wait and see how much my work is worth. My ultimate goal at the moment is just to be selected for the World Cup side, I didn’t have this aspiration when I started out. I just wanted to be a better rugby league player and maybe win whatever competition I was playing in at the time.”
Clark agrees that it is harder for US born players to break into rugby league because of the saturation of their sports market with American Football, Baseball and Basketball but despite feeling that players born in other countries have an advantage of growing up with the game, he is keen to learn and grow into the best player that he can be.
“Growing up in Montana and being active in the mountains and outdoors may have helped [with the physical aspect of the game] but I’m sure the hours in the weight room and on the training field were the most beneficial. As far as the mental aspect goes it’s just a matter of being a student of the game and trying to soak in as much as possible, especially since I came into the game at a later age I feel like I’ve had to play catch up because most other players grew up with the game and have it on TV and have constant exposure, so they have a considerable advantage.”
Despite his success in the USARL and the praise he has gained off the back of such a dominant season, Clark isn’t getting ahead of himself and when he tries out for the Wolfpack, and plays in the Colonial Cup in front of Toronto’s Director of Rugby Brian Noble, he just wants to go out there and do his job.
“I will be trying out for the Wolfpack when they have their tryouts in Philadelphia (Oct 2). Of course you always want to impress people, especially if there are scouts from a pro team watching, but you can’t let that affect your game. So it’s just a matter of going out and doing your job and trusting the guys next to you to do their jobs and not expect to score six tries and make a Sonny Bill highlight on every tackle, but if you make a good shot that’s always good. It will be interesting to see how it all goes and to be signed on [to the Wolfpack] would be an awesome opportunity.”
It is no secret how big an opportunity that the formation of the Wolfpack will offer North America to grow the sport of rugby league but Casey feels that the groundwork has been lain by the passion of the board members, team managers, players and fans of the USARL.
“The game has been growing steadily in the US for a while and everyone involved has played a big part. The formation of the Wolfpack is certainly a milestone for rugby league in the States and Canada and hopefully it develops and opens up the sport to the rest of both countries. It will be really good if they get younger development players that grow up with the game and become quality players.”
Speaking to Casey, it is clear that one motivator for him and his US born teammates is the fact that they feel they aren’t taken as seriously as they should be, but he is also appreciative as to why this is.
“Myself and the other home grown players play with a bit of a chip on our shoulders because the rest of the world doesn’t seem to take us seriously because we’re just the dumb, soft yanks that can’t play footy without pads so that’s always a bit of a motivator. But on the other hand we don’t have the money, the facilities, the manpower, the coaches, the media, the culture, the fans or just the general support. It’s already David vs Goliath and we don’t even have a sling.”
Clark went on to state that the USA’s bid for to host the 2021 would be great for the sport in the States and would help to take the sport to the next level.
“If the US got the bid for the next World Cup that would be a huge deal because that means rugby league in the States has done something that rugby union in the States hasn’t been able to do yet and over all it would benefit both codes just from sheer exposure and that’s the one thing that rugby in the US is lacking that would help it evolve. As soon as people see it, they like it and they want to watch more of it but there’s very very few places for people to find it. And it would be very fun to play in front of a home crowd but with regards to captaining the team, I’m not much of a captain more of a lieutenant.”
Before the 2021 World Cup rolls around though there is the small matter of the 2017 World Cup for which the USA Hawks have already qualified. Casey has been selected to be featured in the World Cup promo for the USA with a videoshoot with RLWC marketing in New York at the end of the month. True to form, when asked about his involvement Casey was nonplussed. Like most other USARL players, Casey hasn’t seen himself thrown into the spotlight playing rugby league and it is clear that his passion is purely for the on-field product.
“I am supposed to go to new York in a few weeks for a promo. I’m not entirely sure what it is. I’ve been told video shoot, commercial for the world cup or something, so I don’t know what to expect. I’ll just have to see when I get there. It’s good that they’re doing some things to promote the world cup and get people to notice. I think it will help for the growth of the game and maybe if they would be able to get the games televised over that would be great.”
It’s evident that he doesn’t see himself following in the footsteps of Brooklyn King’s coach, Nick Youngquest into modelling when he hangs up his boots though, that’s for sure.
“I’m not much of a showman or a model so I don’t know what they are going to do with me. I guess i’ll just have to hope the camera doesn’t shatter after it takes my picture.”
One thing that does shine through with Casey Clark’s personality is that he doesn’t seem to realise how good he actually is and could potentially be. It is understandable of course having only taken up the sport in 2011, but stating that he would rather be Lieutenant than Captain and seeming immune to the significance of his selection to be in the USA’s promotional material for the World Cup, shows just how humble he is. Added to this, when asked if he felt nicknames like that of Gillmeister’s would work with him, he was dismissive and indicative that regardless of what is said about him, he will always just focus on the task at hand.
“I don’t really have any nicknames and i’ve never really been a nickname kind of guy. It’s not that I don’t like them, I’ve just never been given one.”
Nicknames may not have been in Clark’s past but they could well be in his future and even if he puts a stop to them, there is one thing that definitely won’t stop and that’s the superlatives used to describe his professionalism, athleticism and warm personality. If Casey Clark does indeed get the chance to Run With the Pack, he will be a fan favourite in no time and who knows, Disney could come calling like they did with Papale, only this time it will be to share the story of a young man from Montana who followed his dreams all the way to the big leagues.
It’s an exciting time to be a rugby league fan and the story of the Wolfpack is one that will be followed the world over.