Governing body of English rugby league approves franchise move to Ottawa

TORONTO — Eric Perez has done it again.

A rugby league enthusiast, the Toronto native first hatched the idea of bringing the sport of sport to Canada on a fish-and-chips wrapper. That turned into the Toronto Wolfpack becoming the first transatlantic rugby league team in 2017.

Now a “super-excited” Perez has got the green light to put a franchise in Ottawa. And he has a wealth of experience from the building Wolfpack from scratch to get the ball rolling again.

“I think I’m more excited this time because I know what it takes and I know what we already have locked in, so I know that we’re in a great position,” he said Monday from England.

Perez heads a Canadian consortium that acquired England’s Hemel Stags team in the hope of moving it to Ottawa. On Monday, the governing body of English rugby league approved the Stags relocation.

“The application for Hemel Stags to be relocated to Ottawa has been accepted in principle — although both the RFL and the consortia have agreed that some further work is required before it can be confirmed that the Stags will be ready to start the 2020 season in Ottawa,” the Rugby Football League said in a statement.

The Ottawa team would start in the third-tier Betfred League One, as the Wolfpack did when they started in 2017.

Perez says his group is mulling over whether to start life in 2020 or 2021.

“It’s at our discretion … Better to do it right that do it rushed,” he said.

The team would play at TD Place Stadium. Perez says he has already started interviewing coaching candidates.

A separate bid to put a new club in New York was deemed in need of more work.

“With regard to the New York bid, the RFL and the consortium have agreed that entry into League One in time for 2020 is not achievable without placing the club under undue pressure, because it is a startup operation without the benefit of existing operations already being in place, and due to some change in the ownership structure during the process,” the RFL said.

“The RFL has therefore encouraged the club to work towards entry into League One in 2021.”

Perez says he expects rugby league to spread to more Canadian cities, saying he has already been contacted by groups in Montreal and Vancouver.

“This could be a big thing for Canada,” he said.

The Wolfpack won promotion to the second-tier Championship in 2017, narrowly missing out on graduating to the elite Super League last year. Toronto currently tops the Championship table at 13-1-0.

Hemel withdrew from League One for the 2019 season with an eye to returning in 2020.

Perez’s ownership group is working with the Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group (OSEG), which owns the CFL Redblacks, OHL 67’s and USL Championship’s Ottawa Fury FC (USL). OSEG also manages TD Place stadium and arena.

“Ottawa Sports and Entertainment Group’s infrastructure means so much that we had to worry about before is taken care off,” Perez said.

The Stags debuted in 1981 in Hemel Hempstead, located 35 kilometres northwest of London.

As founder and CEO, Perez was the face of the Wolfpack when its blueprint was announced in 2016. But he stepped away from the team to work on further expanding the game.

Perez said he will step down from the Wolfpack’s board of directors while maintain a minority ownership role.

David Argyle, a Toronto-based Australian entrepreneur who heads up the Wolfpack ownership group, has taken a more prominent public role.

In addition to Toronto, the RFL currently has two French clubs in the Catalan Dragons (in the Super League) and Toulouse Olympique (in the Championship).

Rugby league is the 13-man version of the game, distinct from 15-man rugby union.

Perez says his hope is to introduce more Canadian talent via the Ottawa team, as well as start a rivalry with Toronto — perhaps in the former of some kind of Canadian cup competition so they can meet even when in separate divisions.

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