The Toronto Wolfpack can earn their third trophy in as many years with a win Sunday at Widnes Vikings.
Toronto (20-1-0) goes into the game at Halton Stadium riding a 15-game win streak and holding a 12-point edge over second-place York City in the second-tier Betfred Championship. A Wolfpack win will put the transatlantic rugby league team out of reach of its nearest rivals with just five regular-season games remaining after this weekend.
The League Leaders' Shield will be hand Sunday for presentation, if needed.
Widnes is stuck in 11th place in the standings — despite a 12-9-0 record — thanks to a 12-point penalty for financial missteps. The Vikings will also be a motivated opponent, given a Wolfpack playoff win last season resulted in their relegation.
But securing the regular-season title just gets Toronto part-way to its ultimate goal of promotion to the elite Super League. The good news is that under the new playoff format, finishing atop the standings makes for a shorter schedule in the post-season.
Brian Noble, the Wolfpack's director of rugby, says the best is yet to come.
"We certainly haven't peaked, which is the exciting thing," said Noble, a rugby league icon as a player and coach. "Our form can get better. Our injury list is a whole lot healthier than it was this time last year ... We've pretty much got our full squad which is both exciting and adds the element of competition for players to play. We've got a number of positions where quite a few players are putting their hands up — and that's healthy."
The Wolfpack are accustomed to winning, but failed at the final promotion hurdle last season.
Toronto went 20-2-1 in winning the second-tier regular-season title, only to lose out on promotion in a 4-2 loss to London Broncos in the Million Pound Game last October.
"Some of us still have a sour taste in our mouths from last year's ending," said Noble. "Because we were clearly the best team in the Championship and knocked off Super League teams including Leigh (in the playoffs) and didn't get to the promised land. It was quite a sobering moment."
The Wolfpack parted ways with head coach Paul Rowley after that loss, replacing him with former Leeds Rhinos coach Brian MacDermott.
In its inaugural 2017 season, Toronto won all 15 regular-season games to top the third-tier League One, winning promotion to the Championship after a 5-1-1 playoff run.
While not disrespecting last year's squad, Noble believes his 2019 side can go that extra mile.
"I think the character of this team will get the job done this year," said Noble, who played with and coached MacDermott.
He also argues that the Wolfpack have the depth to rest some players in the final games of the regular season to save them for the playoffs.
"I don't think we're going to run out of petrol as we did in many respects last year on a number of fronts," Noble said. "And I think this squad is competitive, healthy and I do believe that on our day — they know, we know — we can beat anybody.
"However, you can't be as arrogant to think there's no team out there that won't find a game on the day."
The promotion format has changed this year with just one Championship team earning promotion.
Last year, the top four teams in the Championship and bottom four in the Super League met up in the Super 8s Qualifiers. The top three in the playoff round-robin secured Super League status while No. 4 met No. 5 in the Million Pound Game.
Toronto, Salford, Leeds and Hull Kingston Rovers all finished with 5-2-0 records in the promotion table. But Salford (plus-143), Leeds (plus-79) and Hull KR (plus-35) finished ahead of Toronto (plus-18) on points difference to secure the three automatic promotion places.
Toronto finished fourth and London fifth, at 4-3-0.
This year's format sees the top five Championship teams squaring off for the one promotion spot, with the regular-season leader getting home-field advantage and needing to win just two playoff games to move up.
While Noble likes the new structure better than the old, he would rather see the regular-season winner win automatic promotion.
If the Wolfpack draw Sunday, only York City can catch them — assuming it beats Bradford earlier in the day. But barring a miracle, Toronto would still finish atop the table given the first tiebreaker is points difference and Toronto enters weekend play with a plus-460 point differential compared to plus-113 for York.
If Toronto loses at Widnes, a York draw or win or victories for Leigh and Toulouse would prevent it from being named champion.
NOTES: Toronto won 30-6 when the teams met in February in a neutral-site game in Newcastle ... While Widnes is coming off a 40-10 loss at Halifax RLFC, it has won its last six at home.
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