Ryan Brierley left a Super League club and dropped two divisions to play in Canada but he is loving the ‘surreal, bizarre, thoroughly enjoyable adventure’
By Gavin Willacy for No Helmets Required, part of the Guardian Sport Network
This time last year Ryan Brierley was adjusting to Super League, having moved to Huddersfield Giants after being a star with second-tier Leigh Centurions. Now he is a leading light at expansion club Toronto Wolfpack, the first transatlantic franchise in British sport. He sat down in his hometown of Preston to consider what went so wrong at the Giants and what is now going so right in Ontario.
How’s your Toronto Wolfpack adventure been, so far?
It’s everything I could have imagined and more. It’s a crazy way of living, especially when you’re in Canada. Going into the city and fans stopping you in the streets, people offering you free donuts… it’s surreal! It’s a bizarre situation, a crazy adventure, but one that we’re thoroughly enjoying. And who is to say being normal is being right? Everything the club said they would do they have delivered. There have been no false promises and it’s only going to get better with time. There’ll be some road bumps along the way but we will iron those out.
Yes, it’s boring over here. We don’t really like coming home now! It’s a dose of reality and I don’t think that’s a bad thing with what’s going on over there. When we come to England it’s a little bit different. We have to put our egos to one side and do the jobs we are supposed to do. When you go to places like south Wales and Newcastle, who don’t have many fans, the challenge is a mental one. You have to create your own atmosphere. That’s probably the most difficult thing but it’s all worth it when you go back to Canada.
Related: Luke Gale on Castleford’s title battle: ‘I’ve not been in big games but I back myself’
We train at Lamport Stadium, where we play, and have a college residency about 15 minutes away. We’re living in pairs but there are two private rooms to each apartment so, although we like doing stuff together, you still need time to yourself, like when your Facetiming your family. It’s great. The gym is five minutes away and we all got given cars so we can go out and explore. A few of the boys have been to Niagara Falls, which is unbelievable. We just roll with it!
It’s a challenge. A few players were missing their kids and family back home. It’s tough for those without a big support network back home. Given time, some of the younger players might get girlfriends over in Toronto and that might become home for some. It’s certainly a place I could live. It feels normal. I wouldn’t rule out living there in the future, certainly when my contract is up or when I finish playing – and I know a few of the boys feel like that. There’s scope for Toronto to become somewhere you stay after rugby and that can only be good for the city.
If I was talking to any player who has the opportunity to come over here I’d encourage them to do it. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity and I’d say “go for it”. Anyone who wants to be involved – players, coaches, support staff – I’d strongly recommend it. It’s a different way of life. Sometimes you’ve got to make that jump to experience something different and something better. It’s the best experience I’ve had in my rugby league career.
“We’ve been to a few schools and tried getting among the people. The big push we want is to get more kids involved in rugby league over there. It’s very new and it’s very fresh. It has to start at school level. You can’t start after that or you’re too raw. This month of home games gives a lot of time to get into schools and deliver the message. They just love any type of sport.”
The 80 minutes on the rugby field at the end of the week is a challenge mentally to keep your standards high and keep motivated. When there’s 7,000 crazy fans in Toronto wanting to give you everything – scarves, hats, they just want to love you and get any piece of you they can – that’s brilliant. It’s when you come back home, getting off the plane and going to play when everyone is fatigued, that’s the challenge. But if the only negative issue is I’m a bit tired after a flight and I’ve got to go and play, we’re on to a winner. That’s not a big deal. It could be worse.
Maybe it’s my fault for thinking things would be different. I’ve always wanted to know what this Super League bubble was, blinded by the bright lights. The easiest way to describe it is this: we travelled from Huddersfield on a Friday night to play at Wigan on Sky TV, we won and I scored three tries. We went home, I got into bed and woke up the next day and nobody cares. It’s totally forgotten about. It’s a weird feeling. You score three tries and you think you’re some sort of superhero, untouchable, but the next day you wake up in the same house, get in the same car. You don’t all of a sudden wake up in Las Vegas or Hollywood. Maybe I thought I’d be mobbed by fans and the media, but it wasn’t like that. It was just day-to-day work and it shocked me a little bit.
Related: Jamie Peacock interview: on England, Hull KR and the wisdom of Rocky III
It didn’t help that we were in a losing team and the environment was never going to be great anyway, but it felt like every day I was going into work, and to me playing rugby league has never been a job: it’s always been something I absolutely love. I just couldn’t feel the love for Huddersfield or Super League. That was probably my fault and I have to look at myself. But I don’t think I could be any more professional. Off the field I do the right things: I look after my body. I don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t do anything bad, don’t eat rubbish. So I give myself every opportunity to develop in Super League. But once I’d ticked that box, I just didn’t feel fulfilled.
100%. We weren’t a successful team, especially last season, but the club did everything right by me. I was speaking to Huddersfield players, trying to get a feel for the club and the town, but I just didn’t feel emotionally connected to the club. I really tried, getting to know the fans and doing promos. Living out of the area didn’t help as you’re not really connected as much. Going to Huddersfield’s stadium felt a little bit cold to me and I can’t hide my feelings. I couldn’t shake that off. What rattled me was I had three coaches in the short time I was there. And I started at full-back then I went to half-back, then I got dropped, then I was on the bench, then back to half-back, then full-back. I probably didn’t do enough to tie a regular starting spot down. That plays with your emotions as well. When you’re playing every week at Leigh and everyone loves you, to not getting a game, it rocks your ego a little bit. It’s not great for the mindset. I’m thinking I should be some sort of hero in Super League and it never really worked out that way.”
I’ve ticked that Super League box. I should have been better when I played but did I get a fair crack? Probably not. I’m thankful for the opportunity though. In Super League we get blinded by this big dream. This is going to sound daft, because I’ve not won the league or the Challenge Cup and people are going to think I’ve got above myself, but it just didn’t fulfil my needs. The decision was made to feel the love again, to feel appreciated and to go back to a comfort zone where I knew I’d be appreciated for my talent and really develop my skills as an attacking half and really control a team. Going into a team and just getting through training and getting through games and then going home to go out with my mates, isn’t what I play rugby for.
Me and Paul have been really good friends for many a year and he’s always joked saying I’m not good enough for Toronto! So I never got the feeling he wanted me there. He’s so professional he would never put me in a situation. He kept it secret from me. I actually got a phone call from Richard Thewlis [Giants CEO] who said they’d accepted an offer from Toronto Wolfpack for me. That shows I’m not needed there and there’s no point them paying a guy to sit on the sidelines. Danny Brough was doing the job I’d been asked to do. Rick Stone was trying to make me more an all-round game-manager, which I don’t deny I need, but my natural ability had been put to one side. He didn’t want me to leave but when an offer has been accepted to sell you, I don’t think you belong there anymore. Rowls said: “I want you to come back and lead this team into Super League.”
That was a big pull. I know the lads there and they’re really big friends of mine. I was watching a Cooper Cronk video – I’m a little bit obsessed with Cooper Cronk – talking about Melbourne Storm. He said the common denominator in successful organisations is they’re good people. And top to bottom at Toronto Wolfpack they’re good people. I really missed the love of going to training and high-fiving everybody and just being myself, being with close friends who love me for who I am. As much as that sounds soft, as men we’re probably afraid to admit we need a bit of love now and then, and that’s what I was missing.
Yeah, it makes a massive difference. I could guarantee I’d be happy with Paul Rowley. As much as I’ve come down two divisions, my happiness level has gone through the roof. I’ve got a really supportive family who are only happy when I’m happy. I’ve always made decisions based on me wanting to be a superstar, a global superhero – I’ve been blinded by that and needed to take a step back and realise what’s most important in my life, and that’s family. I’m a much happier person now which makes me a very, very dangerous player for the Toronto Wolfpack. Hopefully we can both benefit from that.”