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Arrows Fly to Decisive Victory As Professional Rugby Debuts in Canada

Written By: Karen Gasbarino-Knutt

On Saturday May 5 in Toronto, Canadian Rugby history was made at York University.

The newly minted Ontario Arrows of the fledgling Major League Rugby hosted the Boston Mystics for what was their first ever home game in the league. But it was more than this. It was the first ever professional rugby union match played in Canada. And with luck, and by all appearances, it is only the first of many.

In their 77-8 victory against the Mystics, the Arrows has had a fantastic start in what amounts to their unofficial premier season; they do not yet exist as part of the MLR, but they are being vetted as a team for the 2019 season and there’s no evidence that this shouldn’t be so, given their early popularity out of the gate. The market for a professional team in Canada is ripe, and two would be even better (there are talks that a Vancouver-based team will also join the MLR for the 2019 season, though there isn't a team as far along in development as the Arrows are).

Arrows Co-Founder, Bill Webb, along with his group of investors, were heartened by the home ‘debut’ of their team. He shared that a lot has to happen between now and the 2019 season ­– if there is to be one. “There are a lot of moving parts and money involved,” said Webb. He went on to explain that the process the Arrows are taking to what they hope will be MLR success is a long and somewhat arduous, not to mention expensive, one.

What we are currently enjoying is an exhibition season. If all goes well – enthusiasm for the team, supporters showing up at the gate, a lot of buzz in social media and amongst rugby crowds – the team of investors sits down and makes a decision regarding whether or not they want to formally apply to the MLR for official team status. Then if they apply, having proved to the MLR at each step along the way that they are a viable team and that their business plan is sound, the MLR brass will then decide if they want the Arrows as an official team.

There’s currently no reason to believe it won’t happen, but everyone is proceeding with cautious optimism. Many of us will remember vividly the failed predecessor of the MLR – no one is eager to repeat those mistakes again. Each ‘T’ must be crossed, each ‘I’ dotted, at every step along the way. In the meantime, Webb and his partners are footing the bill, paying for travel and expenses.

Everyone involved is doing their part to get it off the ground, in the hopes that it goes well and salaries follow.

Despite the caution, everyone involved is excited about the potential and hopeful for the future. Webb adds “the tide is slowly turning and people are recognizing what’s at stake.” All levels of support have to be aligned for it to be a success, and that’s starting to be in evidence. As this debut home match was approaching, everyone started to realize that this could become a reality.

“The stakes are rising on a whole bunch of fronts; the players are rising up and performing well as a result of the increased attention, and the crowd certainly wasn’t a disappointment.” Webb was also pleased to point out that a lot of tickets were sold at the gate on the day – a very promising sign. Overall, he said, they took away a lot of positives. He did acknowledge that beer lines were too long, but he’s pledged they’re working to alleviate that issue for the next match played next week at York University’s larger Lion Stadium v the Rugby Canada Select A team.

The crowd of 1604 at the smaller venue on the edge of campus was vocal and excited. They cheered with as much enthusiasm for the first try as the 12th. They were supportive of the team and have already developed chants for favourite players. There was even a crew of fans in attendance who were in “Arrow Superhero” costumes, explaining that they’ve waited a long time for their own team, and plan to be at any match no matter the conditions. These are not fans that are watching an exhibition season – to them the team is a legit fixture in the league. 

Flyhalf Will Kelly of McMaster and Brantford Harlequins shared that the team was amped up the day before at the captains run. “The boys are excited to finally get out in front of a home crowd,” he shared. “We’ve been building really well each game and can’t wait to put on a performance for everyone.”

Arrows first home game on April 14 was cancelled due to a late-season ice storm, and tickets were honoured for the May 5th fixture, but some who had purchased tickets did not opt to attend. Webb was pleased with the last minute online ticket sales as well as the sales at the gate.

The decision to watch and see interest for the first game spread organically was intentional. Now that the momentum is building, he sees no reason that there shouldn’t be a full house of almost 4000 at Lion’s Stadium on May 18.

Post-game analysis by the players had Kelly offering that the boys felt in the week lead-up to the match that they’d finally gelled as a team, saying “all the pieces finally came together this week” for them as a unit. Assistant coach and one of Rugby Canada’s favourite sons Aaron Carpenter echoed this sentiment, saying that in previous matches the boys had left points on the field, but played much tighter in this game. He’s excited to see what they can do against the Select team, and predicts a great and fast match.

"I think we have had a difficult few weeks of training due the big ice storm that cancelled our first home game. We noticed some deficiencies in our attack, went away and fixed those and it all seemed to pay off on Saturday," Carpenter reflected. "The boys are coming together well and winning, and a competitive training environment always help that. We are not that upset leaving points on the board when it ends up 77-8, but it's the search for perfection we are all after. The record is one we can be really proud of and one the fans and investors can really get behind to get this team into the MLR next season. I think first we have to focus on these next two games – which will be our toughest and most exciting. Then we can begin to prepare for next season, as long as everything continues to go as planned." Clearly, the stakes are high as everyone can see. 

Inside Centre Mitch Richardson of McMaster (and who has played with the Canada Select team) offered his impressions: “it was an eventful day playing in front of a home crowd for the arrows first ever home game and being involved in it is truly something to remember. Myself and the Ontario arrows are really looking forward to the Canada Selects game, facing another challenge for ourselves, but also improving Canada’s men’s national program. The Selects should will be super fit as they’re training every day with each other – I think they will give us our best challenge yet. I’m very lucky to get to be a part of it!”

Webb is grateful to the commitment of his coaching staff and players, and is enjoying how much the coaches are getting out of their squad. Of Carpenter he says, “he’s demanding but fair.” He's pleased to have such a capped coach bring his wealth of experience to training. The players look up to him and respect him.  

Also pleasing to those involved in the Arrows is their 3-1-1 record thus far in their unofficial debut season, which at this point is about half over. The team boasts standout players, including captain Mike Sheppard and Richardson and Kelly, as well as some swift feet on the backline, especially Kainoa Lloyd – who crossed the line four times to Sheppard’s hat trick of tries. Kelly was sure-booted, kicking for 7 conversions and one penalty.

Webb admitted it’s great seeing the players garner the attention of Rugby Canada, agreeing that the whole point of professional rugby is to develop a training ground for our national team.

He’s hopeful it will all go to plan. Rugby supporters in Canada are as well.

Match Official, Ontario’s own Dale Hall, agrees that any amount of extra exposure for home-grown talent can only bode well for national team growth. He added his thoughts about the prospect of professional rugby in Canada, saying that it will have an “incredible effect on our sport. Up until now, if an athlete wanted to play professional rugby, they’d have to uproot their entire life and move to a different continent. That’s a tough ask on anyone, and may have been a deciding factor for those multi-sport athletes who have the ability to play two sports at a high level. Imagine being 18 years old and deciding between playing hockey in a city that is only a two-hour drive from your parents' house, or playing rugby in a town that is an eight-hour flight from your parents' house. The Arrows program definitely helps even out the scale on that debate.” He went on to say that developmentally, rugby is certainly headed in the right direction here at home.

We’ll all watch with keen interest over the next few months as history continues to unfold, and we’ll hope to next season be purchasing season tickets for our team, along with a shirt, hoodie, scarf, hat or whatever’s on offer of that great Avro Arrow swash logo.

In the meantime, anyone keen to help show Webb and his partners and the MLR that Ontario is ready for a professional team can purchase tickets online through the Arrows’ website: Webb, Carpenter, and the boys would love to see you as they face the Canada Selects at 6:00 pm (et) on Friday May 18.

I’ll be there cheering on #MYTeam. Will you?