Toronto Wolfpack plot financial path to Super League rugby

Toronto Wolfpack's Quentin Laulu-Togaga'eImage copyrightALAMY
Image captionToronto play in the second-tier Championship this season

With the new rugby league season about to kick-off, the sport’s most exotic club is ready to take to the skies again for a campaign of trans-Atlantic battle.

Canadian club Toronto Wolfpack created a stir when they joined the third tier of the English rugby league system last year, as it meant round trips of around 7,000 miles for away games.

The club and its main sponsor, Canadian airline Air Transat, paid – and will do so again this season – for their European opponents’ eight-hour flights to and from Canada for away games against the Wolfpack.

Toronto Wolfpack cheerleadersImage copyrightALAMY
Image captionThe club is looking to boost its presence in Canada and in the UK

After running away with the title last year, the Wolfpack will play in the second-tier Championship league this season, competing against a host of powerful English clubs, plus Toulouse in France.

The club admits it made a financial loss last year, but insists that was expected as part of a longer-term business plan designed to reach the riches of the top tier of rugby league.

‘Right trajectory’

“It is a five year plan to get to the Super League,” the Wolfpack’s general commercial manager Scott Lidbury, an Australian who grew up watching rugby league, tells me.

Toronto Wolfpack's Jonny PownallImage copyrightALAMY
Image captionThe club will face a number of historic and powerful English club sides this season

“We are in year two of that plan, we are in the Championship and things are on the right trajectory. Promotion this year is obviously the goal. We would be disappointed if we did not finish in the top four.”

Coming among the top quartet would give them a chance at promotion via the Qualifiers Super 8s playoffs.

Mr Lidbury adds: “It would not be the end of the world if we did not go up, but we feel confident, particularly with the players we have signed.”

He says if they were not promoted the business can sustain its various outgoings, from travel and stadium hire to player salaries and media operations.

Toronto Wolfpack's Quentin Laulu-Togaga'e (in white)Image copyrightALAMY
Image captionPromotion to the Super League is the club’s sporting and business goal

But promotion to the Super League would bring a huge financial boost in terms of TV rights money from Sky, and more and bigger sponsorship deals.

Last season’s budget was 3.4m Canadian dollars ($2.7m; £2m), and is set to be more this year as the club has moved out seven players from last season, but brought in 10 more.

Centre of excellence

The Wolfpack’s main financial backer is Australian mining tycoon David Argyle, who grew up playing rugby.

“David is 100% in it for the long term,” says Mr Lidbury. “He has a very strong vision, he is a big driver of Toronto as a regional centre of rugby excellence, for both codes.”

Toronto Wolfpack fanImage copyrightALAMY
Image captionThe club wants to increase its number of season-ticket holders

The Wolfpack play their games in blocks of away matches followed by home ones in the summer, to cut down on criss-crossing the Atlantic and also because the harsh Canadian winter extends into the start of the season.

This year they will play 11 away games, then two at home, then two on neutral English grounds, then eight at home.

Chief executive and club founder Eric Perez secured the use of 10,000-seater Lamport Stadium in Toronto, and last year average home gates were a healthy 7,000 (though half of those attending had complimentary tickets).

Eric PerezImage copyrightALAMY
Image captionEric Perez is the founder and chief executive of the Wolfpack

The team wants bigger gates this season, and to boost its 650 season-ticket holders by at least 50%.

A UK-based business development manager has also been appointed to bring in British commercial deals, and to deal with things like new Toronto player registrations and obtaining relevant visas for visiting players.

In addition, the club has now made the Platt Lane Sports Complex in Fallowfield, south Manchester, its full-time UK base.

The case of Barrow Raiders

Barrow RaidersImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionBarrow Raiders won the League 1 Cup last season

Each away team can travel free via Air Transat when they play in Toronto; being able to take a full squad, coaches and ancillary staff, at what has been promised by rugby league authorities as no cost.

However, last season Barrow Raiders, which played in Canada twice, found there was a financial price to pay.

It had to pay for things like coach travel to and from the airport, extra baggage, visas for some players at £80 each, and food and drink for 25 players and staff. It cost the club around £4,000 for the regular League One fixture in Canada.

When the teams played again in the Super Eight playoffs in Toronto, fans set up a funding page and raised nearly £3,000 to cover the club’s expenses. And while 30 fans made the trip for the first game, none went for the second.

The clubs will play home and away again in the Championship this season.

‘Major partner’

Principal sponsor Air Transat, signed on a three-year deal, provides 540 airline seats a year, which sees the club fly with 35 people when it visits Europe, and opposition clubs offered 25 free transatlantic return flights.

Air Transat owns Canadian Affair travel website, which offers away team fans weekend packages in Toronto, including hotel and match ticket.

“They are a major partner for us and play a crucial role in our operations,” says Mr Lidbury. “They are the perfect example of a brand who can benefit from association with ourselves.

“Like one of our other major partners, Maple Leaf Diamonds, they are a Canadian brand looking to be stronger in the UK.”

Conversely, the club’s UK sponsors such as Manchester Metropolitan University get coverage in Canada.

A fan’s view: Steve Newcombe, London Broncos Supporters Association

London Broncos (grey/black) v HalifaxImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionLondon Broncos play their home games in Ealing, west London

“They knocked us out of the Challenge Cup in London last year, and their visit created a buzz. They are a brash organisation and good luck to them, they wear their hearts on their sleeves.

“They also have healthy crowds at their home games. They will be looking to build fan support not only in Toronto, but among Canadians in the UK.

“I won’t be going to Canada for our away Championship game, but a couple of dozen fans will go to Toronto.

“With the Wolfpack having a major base in Manchester they are buying English-based players who might have gone to other clubs here, and that has caused debate among rugby league fans.”

‘TV revenues’

The Wolfpack has an unusual TV arrangement whereby it films its own home matches and gives the footage free to CBC Online and cable channel Game TV.

Although they lose money on the operation they feel it is vital in generating wider awareness.

“Our goal is to grow our reach, and develop our revenue streams, and broadcast is something we are working on all the time, developing Wolfpack TV platforms,” says Mr Lidbury.

“We hope that in year three we would be able to start driving some TV rights revenues. We believe we have a very bright sporting and business future.”


Victorian nymphs painting back on display after censorship row

Hylas and the Nymphs by JW WaterhouseImage copyrightMANCHESTER ART GALLERY
Image captionHylas and the Nymphs by JW Waterhouse dates from 1896

A gallery is to put a Victorian painting of naked adolescent girls back on display after a row over censorship.

Manchester Art Gallery said it took down Hylas and the Nymphs by JW Waterhouse to “encourage debate” about how such images should be displayed.

But critics accused curators of being puritanical and politically correct. The painting will return on Saturday.

“It’s been clear that many people feel very strongly about the issues raised,” Manchester City Council said.

The 1896 painting was removed a week ago in an attempt to rethink the “very old-fashioned” way images of women’s bodies were exhibited as “either as passive beautiful objects or femmes fatales”.

Curator Clare Gannaway said: “It’s not about saying these things can’t exist in a public gallery – it’s about saying, maybe we just need to challenge the way these paintings have been read and enable them to speak in a different way.”

Visitors were invited to write their views about the decision on sticky notes and post them in the vacant space.

Manchester Art Gallery
Manchester Art Gallery
Image captionVisitors can stick notes to the wall where the painting hung

But after a backlash, the city council, which runs the gallery, announced that the painting would return to the wall.

The gallery’s interim director Amanda Wallace said: “We were hoping the experiment would stimulate discussion, and it’s fair to say we’ve had that in spades – and not just from local people but from art-lovers around the world.

“Throughout the painting’s seven day absence, it’s been clear that many people feel very strongly about the issues raised, and we now plan to harness this strength of feeling for some further debate on these wider issues.”

The gallery is now planning a series of public events “to encourage further debate”.

‘Killing any debate’

Speaking on Thursday, Clare Gannaway denied that the gallery was censoring the picture, but there were strong reactions on social media and in the art world.

“Removing art due to political concerns is exactly censorship,” wrote Gary Brooks on Twitter.

“I think you can spark a debate without removing the painting,” said Ben Perkins.

Professor Liz Prettejohn, who curated a Waterhouse exhibition at the Royal Academy in London in 2009, told BBC News: “Taking it off display is killing any kind of debate that you might be able to have about it in relation to some of the really interesting issues that it might raise about sexuality and gender relationships.

“The Victorians are always getting criticised because they’re supposed to be prudish. But here it would seem it’s us who are taking the roles of what we think of as the very moralistic Victorians.”

The painting’s initial removal was filmed to be made into a new piece of video art for artist Sonia Boyce’s exhibition at the gallery in March.

Postcards of the painting were also taken out of the gallery shop.

The furore came two months after two sisters started a petition asking the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to remove, or at least reimagine the way it presented, a painting by Balthus of a neighbour’s daughter in an erotic pose.

The sisters said the Met was “romanticising voyeurism and the objectification of children”.

The museum refused to remove it, saying it wanted to encourage “the continuing evolution of existing culture through informed discussion and respect for creative expression”.

BBC News

With thanks to the Dark Web, a 17th century letter from Satan to a nun is deciphered

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Millions of people surf the internet every day. What most don’t know is that, lurking encrypted and hidden within the everyday web that we all use for news, games, and social media sharing is also the Dark Web, full of bitcoin, drugs, cybercrime, and other shady matters.

But in this case the Dark Web was useful, revealing a code breaker that recently allowed scientists to translate a letter an Italian nun said that Satan wrote to her.

For over 300 years, researchers have been stymied, unable to decipher the symbols and letters in the strange document. According to Live Science, the director of the Ludum science museum in the province of Catania in Sicily, Daniele Abate, said that the Dark Web provided an intelligence-grade code-breaking system that enabled them to decipher the letter.  “We heard about the software, which we believe is used by intelligence services for codebreaking. We primed the software with ancient Greek, Arabic, the Runic alphabet and Latin to descramble some of the letter and show that it really is devilish,” said Abate. “The letter appeared as if it was written in shorthand. We speculated that Sister Maria created a new vocabulary using ancient alphabets that she may have known. We analyzed how the syllables and graphisms [thoughts depicted as symbols] repeated in the letter in order to locate vowels and we ended up with a refined decryption algorithm.”

The story begins in 1676, when Sister Maria Crocifissa della Concezione of the convent of Palma di Montechiaro in Sicily, 31 years old, claimed to be possessed by Satan. Records of the convent written by Abbess Maria Serafica show she struggled on a daily basis with her belief, fighting and screaming almost every night against the evil spirits that would not leave her alone.

Sister Maria, born Isabella Tomasi, had joined the Benedictine convent when she was 15 and she was well known and liked by the other Sisters and the Abbess. One August day they found Sister Maria in her quarters on the floor with an ink-stained face, clutching a letter she had written during an episode of possession.

 The letter was 14 lines, written in an undecipherable language. Sister Maria claimed the letter was written though her by Satan in his efforts to steal her away from God. The characters used in the letter looked like a combination of runes, modern shorthand, and alphabetic letters from other languages. According to Abbess Maria Serafica, Sister Maria refused to sign the letter, instead writing “Ohimé” (oh me), for which she was later blessed.

No one could decipher the letter in the 17th century or for decades afterward. Now that it has been deciphered, researchers say the letter rambles on about how humans invented God and Zoroaster. It claims that God and Jesus are “deadweights” and that “the system works for no one.” It also speaks of the River Styx, saying, “Perhaps now, Styx is certain.”

The River Styx appears in Greek mythology as the separation of the living world from the dead. When one died, the soul reached the River Styx and waited for Charon the ferryman to deliver the soul to the Underworld. If the family had buried the deceased with a coin, Charon would gladly take them across the river to await a new body and life.

If not, one had the choice to try to swim the river or be left to haunt the family that did not provide the coin. The River Styx was also used by Thetis the nymph to make her son, Achilles, immortal by dipping him into the river–except for the heel with which his mother held him that turned out to be his weak spot, allowing Hector to kill him with a poisoned arrow supposedly directed by Zeus.

Abate knew that discovering more about Sister Maria would allow insight into the letter. It is his opinion that Sister Maria, who was well educated, suffered from schizophrenia or perhaps bipolar disorder. It would seem that schizophrenia is the most logical answer as those who are afflicted often hear voices telling them to do specific things.

Researchers around the world were excited to learn that the letter had finally been translated, but the actual research and findings have not yet been published, allowing for peer review.

J.R.R. Tolkien’s other adventure: Courting and marrying Edith Bratt

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The legendary novels The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings have already withstood the test of time, confirming the legacy of J.R.R. Tolkien. However, not many readers may be familiar with Tolkien’s personal struggles when it came to marriage and the outcome.

The story is of his wife, and muse, Edith Bratt.

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, known as Ronald in his family, met Edith, who was three years older than him, when he and his brother, Hilary, moved into a boarding house on Duchess Road in Edgbaston, where she lived. Edith and Hilary Tolkien got along very well and they frequently spent time together; however, there was a special spark between Ronald and Edith. They didn’t share the same interests but were on the same level in emotional ways.

According to the English biographer Humphrey Carpenter, she had no interest in his love of books and languages, just as he wasn’t much into her love of piano-playing, but that didn’t prevent them from smuggling food out of the kitchen and making secret feasts in Edith’s room. Their everyday adventures included visiting tea shops and throwing sugar-cubes into the hats of passers-by. Carpenter described their relationship as one that was meant to flourish since they were both orphans who needed affection and kindness and they realized that they were capable of giving that to one another. In the summer of 1909, they fell in love.

Not everyone was happy with this romance. The guardian of Tolkien, Father Morgan, thought Edith was the reason that Ronald failed his exams, and he considered it unfortunate that his surrogate son was having a romantic affair with an older, and on top of everything, Protestant woman. He ordered him not to meet her or even talk to her until he was 21 years old. Ronald, who was not rebellious and aware that he was dependent upon Father Francis’ financial support, obeyed his demand.

At that time, Ronald was studying for a scholarship at the Oxford University, a challenge that he didn’t succeed in achieving as his young mind was presumably occupied with Edith. He failed the entrance exam and couldn’t prove to Father Francis that Edith wasn’t his main distraction regarding schooling. He recorded in his diary entry on January 1st, 1910, “Depressed and as much in dark as ever. God help me. Feel weak and weary.”

His disappointments during that period were vividly described by Tolkien himself in one of his letters to his son Michael, where he told him that he had to choose between obeying and respecting his guardian who was like a father to him and the love he felt for Edith. He continued by saying that he had never regretted his decision to wait, but he was aware that it was pretty hard on Edith. He knew that she was entirely free and hadn’t made any promise to him, having complete freedom to marry any other person. For almost three years, he didn’t write to her or see her and he felt completely devastated. He was distracted and, ultimately, failed in his primary year at college.

It can be said that Ronald was counting the days until his 21st birthday when he could finally write to Edith. At that time, she was living with C. H. Jessop, a family friend, in Cheltenham. He declared his love for her, which as he said, never ceased, and finally asked her to marry him.

Her answer left him heartbroken. Edith replied that she was already engaged to George Field, the brother of one of her friends and that she had said “yes” to him. However, she added that her decision was one of convenience because she had believed that Tolkien no longer cared for her. Fortunately, she finished the letter saying that his words made her reconsider her feelings towards him as well as her marriage decision regarding Field.

On January 8, 1913, Tolkien traveled by train to Cheltenham where Edith was waiting for him at the railroad station. They walked and talked for hours. When the day was over, Edith accepted Tolkien’s proposal. She returned her engagement ring to Field, leaving him shocked and his family insulted.

Learning of Edith’s new plans, her guardian wrote her that although he didn’t have anything personal against Tolkien, he considered his prospects to be very poor as he didn’t have any profession or career that would provide Edith stability as his spouse.

Just before their engagement, Edith announced that she decided to convert to Catholicism and that Tolkien had insisted on her doing so. Her guardian was quite upset, for like many others of his age and class, he was strongly anti-Catholic.

In January of 1913, Edith and Tolkien were engaged in Birmingham and on March 22, 1916, they finally married at St. Mary’s Immaculate Roman Catholic Church, Warwick. With a humorous tone in another of his letters to Michael, Tolkien wrote that he admired his wife for being willing to marry an almost penniless man with no career and no higher prospects except the possibility of being a casualty in the First World War.

Read another story from us: The life story of J. R. R. Tolkien will be told in not one but two films

The friends of the Tolkien family witnessed a great affection between the two. They described their care and love as almost absurd when it came to wrapping birthday presents for each other; they had and frequent conversations, whether it was about health, house, or garden. They shared an immense love for their family and this, along with their love for each other, was the strongest bond keeping them together for over 50 years until death parted them.

Restoration work in Rome’s ancient catacombs reveals 1,600-year-old hidden frescoes

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Since their rediscovery in the 16th century, Rome’s catacombs have dazzled the archaeological community. The ancient underground burial networks are a famed burial site both for Christians and for people who worshiped any of the earlier Roman religions.

Underneath the city, people were either placed in distinct catacombs or buried together. It began as early as the 2nd century AD, when inhumation had become a more common funerary practice. Christians at the time typically opted for burials instead cremations, as they believed in bodily resurrection at the Second Coming.

As an extremely important site, Rome’s ancient catacombs represent an epic monument of the ancient empire and the inception of Christianity. Moreover, the catacombs also provide an invaluable contribution to the history of early Christian art. They have been a treasured site with a plethora of frescoes, sculptures, or gold-glass medallions among other items, which widely exemplify the artwork done before 400 AD.

The exploration and excavation of Rome’s hidden tunnels seem to be a continual work in progress. The discoveries have never ceased to surprise us. Not only have new chambers been identified in recent decades, but so have new precious artifacts.

In May 2017, restorers put the finishing touches on a seven-year restoration work of two underground burial rooms in the Catacombs of Domitilla. Thanks to their effort, two long-hidden frescoes, which were likely commissioned approximately 1,600 years ago by bakers in the city, have been revealed.

The Catacombs of Domitilla, named after Saint Domitilla, expand over 11 miles of underground caves. As large and impressive as they are, they are exceptional for several other reasons. They are the oldest of Rome’s catacombs, and the only ones still containing bones. Reportedly, they alone have been the burial site of almost 150,000 bodies.

The Domitilla Catacombs are also the best-preserved and the most extensive of all ancient burial networks beneath the city. Among their treasures and invaluable artifacts is a 2nd-century fresco of the Last Supper.

Lurking under a chalky deposit and algae domesticated after centuries of being abandoned, new frescoes have been found. Experts have used lasers and scanning technology to restore the paintings, stripping away the deposits, layer by layer. The technique used has never before been applied in catacombs.

As the layers have been removed, numerous images have slowly started to emerge on the surface, depicting figures from the Old and New Testament, and also vignettes related to the baker’s trade.

According to Barbara Mazzei, who had been supervising the restoration work on behalf the Vatican’s Pontifical Commission for Sacred Archaeology, the restorers have accomplished the work “millimeter by millimeter.”

One of the scenes revealed in the frescoes depicts the deceased accompanied by two saints. The saints may be Nereus and Achilleus, who were two martyrs, most likely killed under Emperor Diocletian and buried here. According to the experts, all evidence shows the frescoes’ origin dates back to the second half of the fourth century when a similar type of iconography was common.

Restoration projects at the catacombs are set to continue further, as there are still more chambers that are in poor condition. It might mean that new finds just may be on their way.

A new museum, to be inaugurated in June, is to showcase artifacts dating from the 2nd to the 5th century from several catacombs in Rome. The collection is certain to shed light on how paganism and Christian faith were mysteriously intertwined together in the early Church.

By  Stefan A

A castle built by the Moors, taken by the Vikings, and conquered by the King of Portugal

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Castle of the Moors. Author: Alex LA. CC BY 2.0

The charming Portuguese town of Sintra is famous for its fairytale palaces and enchanting gardens. Although Pena Palace and Quinta da Regaleira are the highlights of the hilly region, the Moorish Castle has recently gained the attention it deserves. The castle lacks the extravagance of the other two palaces, but that doesn’t make it unworthy of a visit. On the contrary, the unique structure is a perfect spot for every history lover.

The Castle of the Moors, or Castelo dos Mouros, was built in the 8th and 9th century by the North African Moors during their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, hence its name. The Moors chose a strategic military location high in the mountains over the River Tagus. Once it was completed, the castle was of great significance for the Moors and remained so until the end of their rule.

The Norwegian Viking Sigurd I Magnusson, a king better known as Sigurd the Crusader, took over the castle in 1108. The Vikings were headed to Jerusalem and as soon as they left the castle, it was once again in the hands of the Moors. Finally, after a couple of attempts to expel the Moors from the castle and the country itself, it was conquered by the King of Portugal, Afonso I “the Conqueror” Henriques, in 1147.

Archeological excavations at the site have discovered remains of a mosque and a few houses that used to be inhabited by the North African Muslims. On the location where once the mosque stood,  Afonso I “the Conqueror” Henriques built a small chapel. Although it remains undiscovered until today, one legend has it that under the cistern is the burial site of one of the powerful North African Kings.

The monarchs of Portugal continuously used the castle; however, it wasn’t as important as it had been during the Moorish rule. The last king of Portugal believed to have used the castle was Fernando I. The monarchs kept the original Moorish architecture of the castle but made small alterations. After the 14th century, it was neglected. For a short period, Jewish families lived in the castle. However, it was once again abandoned after they were banished from the country.

The Moorish Castle didn’t see any improvements in the following centuries. In fact, its condition has only gotten worse. Vegetation took over the castle and a big fire damaged most of the towers and rooms. Also, the tremendous earthquake in Lisbon in 1755 affected the architecture of the castle. But no one was willing to repair it and everything was indicating that nature would eventually destroy the castle. And so it would have probably ended up if it weren’t for King Ferdinand II.

 In 1842, he built the Pena Palace and enjoyed looking at the Moorish Castle from his residence. However, the condition of the medieval fortress troubled the King, so he started to make plans to restore it. Ferdinand II was a great admirer of the arts, and the castle was his favorite spot for painting. Everyone who has visited the castle would be unsurprised by this fact.

It has breathtaking views: from one side is the magnificent Pena Palace, and on the other is the oldest palace in Portugal, the National Palace of Sintra. Beautiful landscapes and the fairytale town of Sintra beneath the fortress are also part of the unforgettable panoramic views. And when the weather permits, it is possible to see the Atlantic Ocean from the highest spot of the castle, known as the King’s Tower.

Ferdinand II liked the Moorish Castle very much and did everything he could to maintain it. In the 20th century, it was once more restored as part of the commemoration of the foundation of Portugal. Archeological excavations continue to this day, and so far the archeologists have also discovered a Christian graveyard and many artifacts on the site that are now on display in the castle. Today, the remarkable Morish Castle is a National Monument, open to visitors and since 1995 has been listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.