TORONTO - The Toronto Wolfpack returned to England on Saturday night, riding a 15-game win streak and nursing a few lumps after a hard-fought 22-18 victory over Featherstone Rovers.
It was an afternoon of smashmouth rugby league at Lamport Stadium that saw Wolfpack forward Darcy Lussick sent to the sin-bin in the first half for punching former teammate Jack Bussey in the head several times. Bussey, now Featherstone's hooker, did not return to action.
In the second half, Featherstone's Joshua Hardcastle laid out Gareth O'Brien, catching the slim Toronto fullback with a shoulder to the chin after he had passed the ball. Featherstone was penalized and the incident was put on report, meaning Hardcastle could face supplementary discipline.
Bad blood aside, it was a bruising encounter all round. For Toronto coach Brian McDermott, whose fully professional team has carved through often lesser opposition this season in the second-tier Betfred Championship, it was a welcome challenge that forced his side to rise to the occasion.
Down 14-0 at the break, Featherstone refused to go away and made it interesting with three tries in a chippy second half before an announced crowd of 7,819.
"I'm really proud of our effort," said McDermott, a former England international prop. "And how tough we were when we needed to be tough. That (game) will have done us a hell of a lot of good."
"I think that's a performance we can be proud of," added Lussick, who was in the thick of it all afternoon.
Toronto (20-1-0) has not lost since March 6, when it dropped a 46-16 decision at Toulouse Olympique. It has outscored the opposition 597-208 since, including two wins over Toulouse, as it continues its promotion push towards the top-tier Super League.
The Wolfpack cut down on the handling errors after two ugly wins over Halifax RLFC and Batley Bulldogs and continued to show off its defence against a resilient Featherstone.
Featherstone (13-8-0) came into the game having won eight of nine since losing 23-14 at home to Toronto on April 22. That was the last time Toronto had won by less than 10 points.
For the second week in a row, the game was played in torrid temperatures. It was 27 C, said to feel like 33 C by the early afternoon kickoff. The contest was played against the roar of engines from the nearby Honda Indy race track.
O'Brien, Chase Stanley, Ricky Leutele and Josh McCrone scored tries for Toronto. O'Brien added two conversions and a penalty.
Jack Ormondroyd, Josh Walters and Connor Jones scored tries for Featherstone. Will Dagger booted three conversions.
"I thought the boys did a fantastic job to hang in there, the way they played and turned up for each other," Featherstone coach Ryan Carr said.
"Take nothing away from them. They played a really good game too, I thought," he added. "They controlled the ball and they built pressure. They defended really well on their try-line. That's what you get from Toronto, they're a class act."
Lussick and Bussey clashed after a midfield collision, with Lussick seemingly irked after Bussey shoved him away. The big Australian came up swinging.
Lussick had no real explanation for what set him off.
"I don't know. Those things happen sometimes, I guess," he said.
But he acknowledged that he wanted to leave a mark after recent visa issues had kept him out of the team.
Carr was unimpressed.
"(Bussey) gets punched in the face and we lose him for the game," he said. "And they lose a player for 10 minutes. I don't understand that. That's a straight red card — direct punches to the face multiple times is a straight red card in every game you'll ever see."
McDermott applauded Lussick's overall efforts on the day, noting he almost didn't play after having back spasms in the leadup to the game. But he did not like "the red mist moment."
"For that moment there, Darcy's own ego became more important that what we wanted," he said. "And that's not tough, that's silly."
McDermott wanted to see the timing of the hit on O'Brien again but said rules are needed to protect players when the ball is being released.
"There are protocols in play so our little men can be skilful and not have the fear of getting whiplashed from behind," he said.
Featherstone has lost three of four all-time against Toronto but is one of the few clubs to win in the past at Lamport Stadium.
Toronto has six regular-season games left — including three top-six opponents in York City, Bradford and Leigh plus Widnes, which would be top six if not for a points deduction for financial reasons.
The third-year Wolfpack won the third-tier League One in their inaugural 2017 season and topped the Betfred Championship last year. But they fell just short in their bid to win promotion to the Super League, losing 4-2 to the London Broncos in the Million Pound Game last October.
The road to promotion is simpler this season but only one team will move up. Should Toronto finish first in the regular season, two playoff wins could earn promotion.
The Wolfpack were missed the injured Adam Sidlow, Blake Wallace and Matty Russell.
Featherstone's Cameron King and Dane Chisholm were also injured. Ben Reynolds did not travel because his partner is expecting a baby.
Toronto's next two games are away in England. A win next weekend at Widnes and the team can essentially clinch the regular season title barring some miracle changes in points differential.
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