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Arrows Up! Toronto brings the MLR to Canada

By: Karen Gasbarino

Feature Photo: José Romelo Lagman

At long last, the Toronto Arrows is finally a reality.

Photo Credit: José Romelo Lagman

A couple of years of hard work and faith that it would happen has finally come to fruition for Bill Webb, Mark Winokur, and their team of investors.

Just in the midst of finalizing their roster for the 2019 season, roughly a month ago Major League Rugby announced the inclusion of Toronto for 2019, along with Washington DC, now confirmed for the 2020 season.

The proceeding month has been a flurry of activity – the Arrows has announced two lots of great signings, their new logo (with mixed review), home and away kit (with mainly positive review), and the home and away match schedule for 2019.

We already knew that it was a matter of time before the Arrows was official. Many weeks ago I spoke to Bill Webb, where we were able to speak off the record about a few unspecific things (such as a hypothetical discussion on the merits of the team being Toronto-based versus Ontario-based, where I made arguments for both). At that time there were a lot of balls up in the air for Webb and team. Potential members of the squad had been notified of interest, but that was all highly confidential for many reasons, not the least of which was that MLR had not finalized Arrows’ inclusion. There was also a game schedule written up for the 2019 season, but until the announcement was made official, it could not be released because Toronto had already been factored into the rotation.

Webb was able to tell me that a full 30 player roster had been notified of intent and “protected” within the league, meaning that while the MLR was working on finalizing the legal, no other team could “pinch” a player the Arrows had expressed interest in. At the time Webb was pleased to say that there was a 100% positive response among the players. Of course, he could not allude their names to me, but he did say the announcements would come in bundles, and we have had two of those now, with a good two-thirds of the squad now in place for 2019.

Some of the two lots of signings have familiar names, not only to fans who watched the Ontario Arrows with interest, but supporters of Rugby Canada as well. A good deal of the known names just spent the repechage stint with Rugby Canada securing that desperately-coveted final spot at Rugby World Cup 2019 in Japan.

Photo Credit: Tim Aylen

The inclusion of “professional” players, those who have benefited from the additional training and playing schedule of the MLR, has already made a massive difference to the Canadian squad, and is in no small part responsible for the fact that the past two weeks we are reveling in victory and hope rather than writhing in defeat. It is the perfect illustration of how the players continue to grow strength to strength by playing in a professional league. It’s the perfect endorsement for the existence of the MLR, and the Toronto team within it.

As Webb explained, the plan all along was to create a strong team culture with great Canadian players, and not simply bolster the Arrows’ squad with stars. It is important to Arrows’ brass that a Canadian team do for Canadian rugby what is intended – help to grow the game in popularity and experience for home-based talent. It isn’t going to be built exclusively on Canadian players. While the focus is definitely going to be on a Canadian culture and rich depth of roster, Arrows will not close the door on other possibilities. Still in all, it will be a mainly Canadian team for Canadian supporters who have desired watching their own players on home soil.

Photo Credit: José Romelo Lagman

Regarding the decision to go with Toronto Arrows rather than Ontario Arrows:

Looking back on our conversation, it occurs to me that Webb et al already knew the name was going to be Toronto Arrows. And why not? Toronto has a storied sporting history with some great teams and teams known for an abundance of heart. The Toronto Wolfpack was the sweetheart team of Rugby League this past season (depending on whose team supporters you speak to, of course), and each of the other Toronto teams has a fan base that is vast and not limited to the GTA (Greater Toronto Area).

Once I grasped that Ontario had changed to Toronto, I was immediately so proud. For several years, I have been an ardent fan of a team 3000 miles away across the Atlantic. I have watched them play, cheered them on, worn their swag, and bantered on social media. But I have been unable to attend a home match or a supporter’s function, or indeed be recognized as an official “fan.” Finally, after years of following rugby and loving the sport, I am “getting” a team. In my own hometown. It felt imminently “right” and on the spot I became their number one fan. My own hashtag is #MyTownMyTeam. You can forgive me, I’ve waited a long time for this. Anyone who feels similarly is welcome to use the tag too.

The minds behind the social media are familiar to us here at Ædelhard, as it is headed up by Brock Smith, talented scribe who has written some amazing riveting rugby profiles for us in the past. They will benefit from Smith’s talent immensely. Already, they’re using Arrows-centred verbiage with fine effect: speaking of filling the roster as a “quiver,” and using the clever and catchy #ArrowsUp hashtag with a bow and arrow emoji. They are already building a brand, and with it, a following.

I already knew that the playing season was going to split in half: away for a long stretch then home for the same. While Toronto is a great city for a rugby team, January is not a month conducive for any outdoor play where frostbite could be a factor, and as much as I am looking forward to each home match, I don’t relish sitting in the stands enduring -40 temps. It’s a sound schedule, and we already know it will work because it’s a similar schedule to that of the Wolfpack, who kept the home fires burning on long away stints with creativity and a strong social media presence. It can be done, and we will make it so.

Photo Credit: José Romelo Lagman

That, and also the opportunity if we so desire (cash and days off from work willing) to travel to some great locales to see the boys play. Anyone fancy New Orleans on January 26? Austin on February 8? Perhaps you would like a trip to Seattle for February 17, where you would also see the celebrated captain of our Canadian team, Phil Mack, Ray Barkwill, and others. Then it’s back to Texas for the Houston SaberCats on Feb. 22, and the away tour continues with games in Glendale, San Diego, New York, and Utah through March.

Our home stint kicks off on April 7 where we will host 8 home games beginning with NOLA Gold, and carries on through April and May, concluding June 2 against Rugby United NY. It will be a packed Spring schedule for the team and fans. The entire season will be a test for all: a long time on the road will be followed by the challenge to fill the seats at home all Spring long.

Photo Credit: Tim Aylen

It is a challenge the Arrows are looking forward to. Despite a few barbs lobbed by supporters that York University is “too far north of the city”, it’s actually ideally situated for fans from throughout south and central Ontario, with two major highways nearby, a subway stop steps from Lions Stadium, and Go Bus services nearby. Webb also noted that York is making improvements to the turf and stadium, and that the University is happy to be hosting the Arrows. But, he added that “a lot of interesting possibilities” exist for the future, and that the team behind the team are “keeping their options open.” They’re also thinking ahead toward an academy as well.

Webb was sure to note that there have been many people putting in countless hours to make the Toronto Arrows a reality, who worked to “prove the concept and back themselves, which they did in spades.” They’re very happy with the preliminary sales of season’s tickets, and are working on the cost for the 8-game home schedule.

Webb and crew are interested in growing a Canadian rugby brand, with our values and heart embedded in each aspect of the team. As a holder of my first ever season’s ticket, I look forward to how the Arrows is going to make their plans come to fruition.

Photo Credit: José Romelo Lagman

Signed members of the squad as of December 6:

Steven Ng, Rob Brouwer, Cole Keith, Morgan Mitchell, Mike Smith, Paul Ciulini, Josh van Horne, Tom van Horne, Peter Milazzo, Lucas Rumball, Andrew Ferguson, Jamie Mackenzie, Shawn Windsor, Sam Malcolm, Spencer Jones, Kainoa Lloyd, Gaston Mieres, Aaron McLelland, Jack Evans and Theo Sauder, with the most recent announcement this past weekend that Dan Moor is returning to Canada from the UK to play on the wing for his own hometown team.

Several of the players signed factored in the Arrows squad throughout their 2018 exhibition season, and so far ten of them (with Dan’s recent inclusion) have had international duty with Rugby Canada; many of them are also familiar to Ontario Blues supporters.

By my count, that leaves nine more signings and a few staffing announcements forthcoming over the next while.

The one name missing from the roster is that of exhibition team Captain Mike Sheppard of Bramalea, Ontario. It adds intrigue to the final release of names.

Bring on exciting season two of Major League Rugby and Toronto’s inaugural season.