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Written By: Brock Smith
“For a bunch of bruisers like us, we leave the pitch with sweat-soaked shirts, sore bodies, and big, goofy smiles. We give our all.”
Ontario Arrows captain Mike Sheppard speaks passionately when describing his club’s typical training session, offering a wry grin from underneath a bushy, lumberjackian beard.
“We work hard at training, harder than most of us ever have before,” the 29-year-old says, offering a behind-the-scenes look at life as part of the fledgling professional outfit. “We take this opportunity seriously, and we treat it with the professionalism it deserves. It can be tiring, and some days it’s gruelling, but we never forget that it’s fun, too. It’s the reason why we all started playing in the first place.”
Motivation and enjoyment; a lunchpail work ethic, combined with a zeal for the game. For Sheppard, this balance represents the young club’s developing ethos.
"Nobody’s ever unwelcome, and nobody ever feels that they’re out of place, or that they have to prove something,” he adds. “Everyone’s here to do their best, and everyone’s got the team at the front of their mind, not individuals.”
It’s that ‘team-first’ mentality that has guided the emerging club to a 3-1-1 record so far in its inaugural season.
And, perhaps more importantly, it’s also created a culture that has Arrows players and staff believing that they belong on the pitch with the best clubs in North America.
“Entering this season, we wanted to prove we could hold our own against Major League Rugby sides. Now, I 100% feel that if we put our best 15 out there, we can beat any other 15 within the competition, no doubt.”
A fire has been lit, and the captain is standing beside the blaze, fanning the flames.
Heading into their home opener on May 5, the Arrows were looking to put an exclamation point on their first season of existence. After four consecutive away games - a byproduct of a delayed home opener pushed back due to a rare spring ice storm - the club was champing at the bit to showcase their high-octane brand of rugby to a growing base of supporters.
“In the weeks leading up to our home opener, we had in the back of our minds that we wanted this match to be a special one,” Sheppard says. “This was our first chance to show our fans everything that we’ve been working toward over the past six months.”
The extra work in training paid off in spades.
The Arrows put forward a thorough 77-8 victory over American premier club side Boston Mystics that afternoon, much to the delight of the 1,600+ fans who took in the home opener.
Sheppard was a busy man over the 80-minute period; when he wasn’t bowling over opponents with hard-nosed tackles, he found time to notch a hat-trick of tries. The 6-foot-4 forward, not known for his scoring prowess, looks to have turned over a new leaf in recent months: he now leads his team in tries (5), and is second in total points (25).
“I’ve never been one to light up the score sheet throughout my career, but maybe I’m just a late bloomer,” chuckles Sheppard.
“I’m just happy to be making meaningful contributions. Whether it’s executing well-timed tackles, ensuring proper positioning, or bagging a few tries here or there, we play as a team, and we enjoy our successes as a team.”
The Arrows’ victory over Boston marked Ontario’s third consecutive win in their exhibition season. The club’s spring record stands at 3-1-1, which includes an impressive road victory over MLR side Utah Warriors, a pair of wins against the perennial top-tier champions Mystics, and a scintillating draw against MLR’s Houston SaberCats.
Many pundits have described Ontario’s inaugural-season performance as both surprising and impressive. With far fewer resources than their fully-professional MLR counterparts, it would have been understandable - predicable, even - if the underdog Arrows had gotten off to a slow start.
Instead, the side has turned heads with their high-voltage performances, reaffirming what the Arrows players and staff knew all along.
“Our play has been pretty much par for the course, in terms of our expectations coming into this season,” Sheppard confidently notes. “We know we have a good team, because with so many of us coming through the Ontario Blues provincial program, we’ve been playing together for years. We know we can ball, that we can play with the best.”
“This season, we’ve been putting an emphasis on mixing up different positions, seeing what fits, and seeing what doesn’t. Overall, I’m happy with how this has all come together, and I think the coaches are happy with it as well.”
Before Sheppard was named club captain in mid-February, the versatile forward had no idea he was even in the conversation for the title.
“I found out about two weeks before we headed out to Houston for our first game of the season,” recalls Sheppard. “I didn’t expect anything at all. Everyone on this squad is a very good player and has a lot of leadership potential, and to be given the chance to try and show off exactly what I can do as a leader has been an opportunity I’m very grateful for.”
After he was informed of the staff decision by head coach Chris Silverthorn, the former Ontario University Athletics all-star with the McMaster Marauders was immediately greeted by fellow McMaster alumnus Rob Brouwer, the formidable prop who captained the Arrows in their first-ever match in Glendale last September.
“Rob knew exactly what Silver and I were talking about, and he came over right away to tell me he thought I deserved the captaincy, which gives you a pretty good idea of the type of teammate he is,” he adds. “Everyone has been really supportive so far.
The wry smile emerges again.
“…I mean, there’s been no mutiny or anything.”
Beyond fulfilling his on-field duties, Sheppard has treated his captaincy with the type of professionalism you’d expect from someone playing in a top-tier league like Super Rugby. Taking cues from his years of experience playing with the Ontario Blues, he’s been slowly building a team culture that brings together a squad of players who are primarily in their early 20s.
“Our group dynamic has been fantastic,” says Sheppard, who at age 29 is one of the Arrows’ elder statesmen. “Even these guys in university, they’re such high-quality players and have been playing with the Blues program either in juniors or with the senior men for a few years now, so between them and us older guys, we all get along just fine. On the pitch, you don’t even notice a difference in age or experience. We’re one unit.”
“Socially, there are some differences, but that’s to be expected,” he laughs. “Following matches, our evenings always start as a team, as everyone respects one another and enjoys each other’s company. From there, some of the old boys may go and have a couple of drinks, while the kids go off and play Fortnite. Definitely a sign of the times.”
With Arrows co-founder Bill Webb and his team of investors set to take the coming weeks to determine the club’s next steps - specifically, the decision to join the inchoate seven-team Major League Rugby - Sheppard has his sights set on ensuring he and his teammates continue to play and train with a consistent professional mindset.
“We all have a desire to get a lot a lot more done with the time that we have together because we’re all buying into the fact that we’re professional now,” says Sheppard, whose day job is as distribution manager for a craft beer distribution company. “We’re trying to make something of ourselves, and to better ourselves as well. It’s a gradual progression, but we’ve really come a long way since our first couple of training sessions. The improvement is staggering.”
Sheppard recognizes that he and his teammates will have to continue turning heads if they’re going to draw the support needed to make this upstart project economically viable in a market, already home to several marquee sports options for the casual fan.
Buoyed by the strong turnout the Arrows enjoyed at their recent home opener, he’s up to the task.
“I want our supporters to come and watch our games because they know they’re going to get a show. The only way that we’ll survive is if we have fan support, and it’s up to us to deliver good, exciting rugby.”
“Putting together a successful on-field product goes beyond our desire to be the best or to win the league, which we obviously want to do, but this sport is supposed to be entertaining, and we’re here to entertain. We’re going to put our best foot forward, come out swinging, and make these games high-scoring and energetic, so that even the most novice rugby fan will leave wanting more. Our home opener was a great start, but there’s plenty more to come.”
Ontario supporters won’t have to wait long to see the Arrows hit the pitch again. Ontario will host the Canada Selects on Friday, May 18 (7 p.m. kickoff) at Toronto’s York Lions Stadium as part of the national program’s preparations for their upcoming June internationals. Tickets to the upcoming home match are available online, as well as at the gate on match day.
“We all believe in the Ontario Arrows,” says Sheppard. “I’m proud to captain this team, and we can’t wait for what lies ahead.”