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London Broncos edge Toronto Wolfpack in rugby league's Million Pound Game

TORONTO — London Broncos players cried, danced, sang and popped champagne Sunday. For the Toronto Wolfpack, there was only disappointment and a gaping feeling in the pit of their stomachs after a 4-2 loss Sunday in rugby league's Million Pound Game.
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TORONTO — London Broncos players cried, danced, sang and popped champagne Sunday.

For the Toronto Wolfpack, there was only disappointment and a gaping feeling in the pit of their stomachs after a 4-2 loss Sunday in rugby league's Million Pound Game.

The tense win on hostile ground means the underdog Broncos return to the top-flight Super League for the first time since 2014. The transatlantic Wolfpack will be back in the second-tier Betfred Championship for another attempt at promotion.

"There's some shattered people in there," said Wolfpack director of rugby Brian Noble, referencing the Toronto dressing-room.

"It's a shock to the system," added Noble, a decorated former player and coach. "Because it's the first rebuttal, the first hurdle that we've stumbled at. But it can only make us stronger if we treat it in the right way."

The Wolfpack have been a success story since first taking the field in 2017, winning promotion out of the third-tier League 1 last year and finishing atop the Championship this year. After going 5-2-0 in the Super 8s Qualifiers, Toronto missed out on automatic promotion on points difference, sending it to the Million Pound Game.

The loss was only the eighth ever in competitive play for the Wolfpack (50-8-2). London joins the Salford Red Devils as the only teams to beat Toronto twice.

Sunday's game was a tense arm-wrestle from the get-go, with some big hits and bigger officiating decisions. Defence dominated on a gloomy 14-degree afternoon before a Wolfpack-record crowd of 9,266 at Lamport Stadium.

The Broncos relied on a stiff defence and some smart game management to get the job done in a game where kickers accounted for all the scoring.

"Somehow we've managed to complete the impossible and get (to) Super League," said ecstatic London coach Danny Ward.

Toronto coach Paul Rowley was classy in defeat. While he hinted at irritation at the officiating, he credited the Broncos performance.

Malta international Jarrod Sammut's ninth-minute penalty for London — after Jake Emmitt was penalized for a high tackle — was the lone scoring until Toronto's Gareth O'Brien slotted home a long-range penalty in the 56th minute to tie the game at 2-2.

Sammut, after a Blake Wallace handling error on the ensuing kickoff, restored the lead two minutes later with a penalty kick when Jack Buchanan was caught with an arm to the head in the tackle.

O'Brien missed a long-range penalty attempt in the 70th minute that would have tied it up.

The Wolfpack gave it their all, as shown by hooker Bob Beswick who was steamrollered late in the game by Thomas Spencer as he tried to make a tackle. The Irish international needed treatment for several minutes before being helped unsteadily off the pitch. 

The London defence was up to everything Toronto threw at it.

"You could see the hunger and the desire," Noble said of the Broncos. "The longer the game went on, the more they believed they could do it. And we just couldn't find a killer-punch in relation to getting over the (try-)line.

"We got over the line a couple of times but it was (waved off), probably rightly so."

Potential Toronto tries by captain Josh McCrone, Ashton Sims and Wallace were negated by video replay.

"It's tough to end a season like that because it's not how we've been all year," said an ashen McCrone, a hard-nosed Australian.

"We'll be back next year," he added. "Unfortunately from Square One again. But that's life."

Toronto did not help its cause when hooker Andy Ackers was sin-binned for a flagrant late hit on Eloi Pelissier in the 32nd minute. The Broncos were unable to take advantage of the extra man, however.

The game is called the Million Pound Game because that figure (C$1.7 million) is said to be the difference in funding that a Super League club gets over a Championship side from the Rugby Football League.

Sunday's promotion showdown was taken in by RFL CEO Ralph Rimmer, who was in on the Wolfpack's expansion talks from the beginning.

"The idea was exciting right from the start," he said prior to the game. "But the progress they've made is astonishing, to be honest."

London topped the Championship with a 20-2-1 while London was second at 16-6-1. The teams split their regular-season meetings with London winning 47-16 at home in February and Toronto coming on top 32-12 at Lamport Stadium in June.

The Wolfpack survived a 22-point second-half rally to down the visiting Broncos 34-22 last month in the Super 8s Qualifiers, which group the bottom four Super League teams with the top four from the Championship.

The top four teams all finished with 5-2-0 records and 10 points with Salford Red Devils, Leeds Rhinos and Hull KR finishing 1-2-3 on points difference. The Wolfpack finished fourth, 17 point behind on points difference after Hull KR blanked Widnes 30-0 on the final day of play.

That meant a home date with destiny and the Broncos (4-3-0, eight points).

This looks to be the last Million Pound Game. In August, Super League clubs voted to scrap the Super 8s Qualifiers with a simple one-up, one down promotion-relegation format.

The Wolfpack loss came less than 24 hours after Toronto FC, whose BMO Field home is visible from Lamport, was eliminated from MLS playoff contention.

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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press