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Written By: Brock Smith
While professional rugby is set to re-launch in the USA next spring in the form of the multi-city Major League Rugby league, north of the 49th parallel one rugby club is keeping pace in the cross-border elite rugby arms race.
Enter the Ontario Arrows Rugby Club, a new high-performance outfit positioning itself to become Canada’s first elite-calibre team. It’s a side designed to compete against top-tier North American club teams, including those that are newly-professional.
Launched in September, the Arrows are an independent offshoot of the Ontario Blues, a provincial squad that competes in the Canadian Rugby Championship. [For context: The Blues are perennial winners of the CRC - Canada’s top domestic competition - and have hoisted the MacTier Cup five times over the past seven years.]
Despite emerging from the pre-existing infrastructure of the Blues, there are several key differences that separate the two programs.
The primary divergence: The Arrows are independently funded by a group of private investors and supporters - a coterie nearing finalization - with no financial obligations from Rugby Canada, Rugby Ontario, or any other provincial rugby union.
“This project is 100% privately funded,” says Bill Webb, one of the members of the Arrows’ founding investment group. “While we’ll be working in conjunction with our national and provincial sport organizations, there will be no administrative or financial burden on these groups.”
The club was born out of an acknowledged necessity and supporters’ desire to increase the number of fixtures for Canadian high performance players. Webb describes the Arrows’ financial backers as a group of individuals set on providing emerging Canadian talent with enhanced and more frequent opportunities to hone their skills at an elite level.
“The overarching objective of this team is to give our high-performance national and provincial-level players more chances to participate in top-tier matches,” outlines Webb.
“As it stands, we have a critical problem in Canada. When you look at our national teams, our players don’t get enough access to consistent, high-level games. We’re hoping to change the landscape by creating a team that will provide an outlet for select players to compete in top-quality matches.”
When looking across the border, the architects of the Arrows sense an opportunity; they want to ensure that they’re the first Canadian elite club out of the gate.
“With the launch of MLR in the western and southern regions of the United States, and an upswell of elite-level sides emerging across the northeast, all signs point to the major growth of top North American rugby over the next year or two,” says Arrows general manager Mark Winokur, who also serves as team manager for the Blues. “We want to be part of this wave of growth, and to get there, we need to explore options beyond the scope of the Blues program.”
“Our top domestic players need more games, and they need to play these games in a more professional environment.”
The Arrows played one “proof-of-concept” match in 2017, falling to a well-drilled Glendale Merlins side in Colorado in early September. Twenty of the Arrows’ 23 roster spots were allocated to Blues caps, with two members of the Atlantic Rock and one British Columbia Bear rounding out Ontario’s lineup. Nine full Canadian internationals featured in the match, while most others were veterans of either Canada’s under-20 or senior ‘A’ programs.
The late-summer fixture represented a de-facto rematch between the two elite sides. Ontario, playing under the Blues moniker, and Glendale, under their MLR-minted Raptors name, squared off in Burlington, Ont., in May, with Ontario emerging victorious, 43-25.
The two matches provided a potential peek into the future of cross-border professional rugby in North America, as Glendale is one of the franchises set to participate in the upcoming inaugural MLR season.
While the Arrows management group has already indicated they will not be pursuing an MLR berth in 2018, a robust spring fixture list - one that will include matches against professional sides - will be announced in the coming weeks.
“We’re looking to establish a series of home-and-away exhibition games against elite-level teams from the northeast part of North America,’ says Webb. “Other elite teams from other parts of the United States, including some teams that will compete in the MLR, have already reached out to the Arrows to schedule exhibition matches for next year.”
The Arrows management group is viewing this spring series as a “real-time research and development opportunity.”
“We’ll use this series to test market the viability of professional rugby in northeastern North America,” adds Webb. “Before jumping into anything, we’ll determine the appetite for commercial sponsorships, broadcast and streaming agreements, etc. We want to do our due diligence, and learn as much as we can.”
There are certainly early signs that a Canadian market could support a professional rugby union franchise. The Arrows may take a cue or two from the Toronto Wolfpack, the transatlantic rugby league franchise that drew crowds of 7,000+ in its inaugural season in Ontario’s capital.
“The Wolfpack have clearly shown that there is significant interest in various codes of rugby in Canada, as has the continued success of the Canada Sevens, and as has the extremely strong fan response to the upcoming Maori All Blacks match at BC Place,” says Webb. “Demand for rugby is everywhere, and we want to be first in the door to create a sustainable rugby union franchise model.”
Along with a compensation structure, decisions about player and staffing personnel will be determined over the coming months, but Winokur has shed some light on probable team composition.
“Our rosters are going to be Ontario-dominant, as our team name would suggest,” says Winokur. “But, similar to the team we fielded against Glendale last month, we expect to select some players from outside our province, with a special focus on eastern Canada.”
Webb echoes those sentiments, while also hinting that a player’s geographic location - or passport - wouldn’t necessarily be an insurmountable barrier to landing on the Arrows’ teamsheet.
“Improving Canadian rugby, and the quality of Canadian players, is our main goal, no questions asked,” adds Webb. “However, if great players come to us, and would be willing to commit to our finalized schedule, then we would take a good long look at those players, regardless of where they’re from.”
In terms of when fans can expect to find out where the Arrows will play their home matches, be prepared to wait until the new year before a venue announcement is made.
“We’re looking at a number of potential venues to serve as our home this spring,” says Winokur. “We’ve got some time before we need to make a decision on a venue, and we’re intending on taking it.”
“The next six months are all about laying down the foundation for the next generation of elite rugby in Canada. From there, the Arrows hit the pitch, and that’s when the real fun begins.”