TORONTO — The Toronto Wolfpack have been winning ugly in recent weeks but remain on course to finish atop the second-tier Betfred Championship, with promotion to the Super League the ultimate goal.
Toronto (19-1-0) looks to extend its win streak to 15 games on Saturday when it hosts the fourth-place Featherstone Rovers (13-7-0). The transatlantic rugby league team, however, is coming off error-filled wins over Halifax RLFC (34-12) and Batley Bulldogs (40-10).
Wolfpack veteran Jon Wilkin, a former Great Britain and England international, says Toronto's defence has made up for a slew of handling errors on offence.
"It's been awful, as ugly as it can get the last few weeks with the ball," he said. "But look at our defensive performances. It's been incredible. I don't know if there's many teams around that would have won (those games)."
Toronto is giving up 13.65 points a game per average. And with an offence producing 36.45 points per game on average, the numbers are all in the Wolfpack's favour.
But failing to complete sets on offence because of handling errors or penalties adds to the pressure on defence. So far the Wolfpack have been able to handle it but know that better teams will make them pay for their mistakes.
Toronto coach Brian McDermott says the recent run of errors has been discussed — to a point.
"Yes we talk about it but, no, we don't make a big deal about it," he said.
The reason for that is he doesn't want to make the issue any bigger than it is.
McDermott believes his team lacked focus against Batley. But he said the poor ball handling in the win over Halifax wasn't helped by the extreme heat and humidity.
Still he says the errors have to stop.
"You can't just say 'It doesn't matter' and ignore it. But it's a fine balance because if I make too big a deal out of it, the first ball they drop, they'll say 'Here we go again.' And I don't want that mentality to set into the place."
The defensive play of Toronto's opponents is also a factor.
McDermott expects to see the best of Featherstone, something he witnesses every week as Wolfpack opponents rise to the occasion.
Most of the Wolfpack games are on TV back in England, providing a rare chance to shine for Championship teams. And Toronto, as a fully professional side with a star-studded lineup, has a target on its back.
Still McDermott's team has not lost since March 6, when it dropped a 46-16 decision at Toulouse Olympique. It has outscored the opposition 575-190 since, including two wins over Toulouse.
Toronto has a 2-1-0 career record against Featherstone with the loss — a 30-12 defeat last July — one of its few setbacks at Lamport Stadium. The Wolfpack won 23-14 when they met in England in April.
McDermott expects a stiff test Saturday.
"We're getting ready for a big one. Chris Plume, my defensive coach has challenged our players and said: 'This mob will challenge you as much as a Toulouse would do.' And the reality is we don't get to say that most weeks.
"Each team has its own challenges and we do certainly respect each team and we highlight certain areas of their game that will challenge us. In particular though for this week, Featherstone's physicality, especially them carrying the ball out of their end, is going to challenge our defence."
After Saturday, 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 promotion bid, 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 make the move to Super League. Should Toronto finish first in the regular season, two playoff wins could earn promotion.
Featherstone will be without the injured Cameron King and Dane Chisholm. Ben Reynolds will not travel because his partner is expecting a baby. Former Wolfpack forward Jack Bussey is in the travelling squad.
The Wolfpack are expected to be without the injured Adam Sidlow, Blake Wallace and Matty Russell.
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