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Marcello Wainwright tosses a ball at a Toronto Arrows practice on Feb. 27, 2020.

Christopher Katsarov/The Globe and Mail

Had he been born just 10 years earlier, there’s a good chance Marcello Wainwright wouldn’t have become a professional rugby player.

He certainly wouldn’t have been pulling on the blue shirt of the Toronto Arrows, for whom the back-row forward could make his season debut on Sunday after missing the first three games with a sprained left ankle. But while the latter opportunity was afforded him by the founding of Major League Rugby three years ago, to even be in a position to grasp it was due in part to the emergence of the Toronto Inner-City Rugby Foundation (TIRF) in 2011.

“I wasn’t very good at sports growing up,” Wainwright says of his childhood, when his sport of choice was soccer. But all that changed when he first picked up a rugby ball at 14 after being asked to try out for the rugby team at Brebeuf College School.

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“I remember just being able to run with the ball in my hands rather than having to dribble it, you can move a lot faster,” the 23-year-old says. “So just when you make a break and you run, it’s just much more of a feeling of freedom than having to slow down and dribble the ball. Your brain kind of switches off and you just go.”

Having been bitten by the rugby bug, Wainwright tried out for Ontario but didn’t make it. So he joined Toronto Saracens rugby club at 16 and with more game time under his belt, he tried out once again for Ontario and made the cut.

The only problem was that representing the Ontario Blues for a summer would cost between $2,000 to $3,000, a sum of money that neither Wainwright, nor his mother Stacey, could afford.

His career might have stalled there, but that’s when TIRF stepped in. Co-founded by Toronto executives Alan Broadbent, Bill Di Nardo and Scott Bryan, the foundation’s mission is to build community through rugby. While that initially began with the simple idea of exposing young Torontonians to the sport through rugby clinics in priority neighbourhoods, it has since grown into free summer house leagues and programming at 106 elementary schools throughout the city. In its nine years of existence, TIRF has allowed more than 26,000 kids to pick up a rugby ball and now awards annual scholarships to postsecondary rugby players.

In a stroke of good fortune, at Toronto Saracens Wainwright found himself playing alongside Di Nardo’s son, Riley, coincidentally enough a future Arrows teammate. When Bill Di Nardo found out about the financial hurdle Wainwright had to overcome to represent his province, he ensured that TIRF removed it.

But Wainwright still had to put in the work, both on the pitch and off it.

“What we're talking about is creating pathways for people with desire and capability and removing the financial constraint from them,” Di Nardo says. “Marcello is not there just because we've removed the financial constraint. He's there because he had both desire and ability.”

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Di Nardo started to realize how much finances were dictating the kind of athletes that were coming into rugby – and those that were being excluded.

So he joined the board of Rugby Ontario and after becoming treasurer decided to make some changes to make the sport more accessible, waiving the insurance portion of playing fees and capping the cost of the uniforms.

“Half the reason why sports are so expensive in this city is because some crazy parents feel like every kid has to be dressed like they're going to the NHL,” he says. “They need all the latest jerseys, jackets, track suits.”

Growing up in a single-parent family in North York, Wainwright just wanted to play and was prepared to take the hard road to get there.

As a role model for both the sport of rugby and for TIRF, Di Nardo admits that while Wainwright’s athletic abilities are easy to see, it’s the player’s attitude and drive that have always set him apart.

“There’s no sense of entitlement,” he says. “This is not a kid who got driven anywhere, he would get on buses and subways and whatever he needed to do; he'd travel an hour and a half on his own, to go to whatever was made available to him.”

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Wainwright’s journey took him to the University of Guelph-Humber, and while he is just one course short of finishing his degree in kinesiology, he helped the school win the 2016 Ontario University Athletics rugby championship and was chosen as an all-star in 2017 and 2018.

His last season of university rugby also coincided with the birth of the Arrows, who played exhibition matches in 2018 before launching into their inaugural MLR season in 2019, and he signed with them straight out of school.

As happy coincidences go, it’s one that still surprises Wainwright whenever he reflects on his journey.

“When I was younger, I guess the dream would have been to play professional rugby, but that dream would have been going overseas,” he says. “So I didn’t even dream that I’d be able to do it here playing like 20 minutes from my house and all my friends and family are there, it’s great.”

The presence of Wainwright on a winning team – the Arrows are 3-0 heading into their match at Rugby ATL this weekend – is certainly a welcome boost for Ontario rugby. But for the sport’s governing body in the province, the hope is he’s just the tip of the iceberg.

“The proof is in the pudding really,” Myles Spencer, the chief executive officer of Rugby Ontario, says “the success that TIRF has had over the better part of a decade now, of becoming a staple in the rugby community in Toronto proper, and it’s been built on the values of rugby. But really, at the core, it’s to provide opportunity for youth that may not otherwise have the opportunity to be exposed to sport and in particular rugby.”

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Wainwright still has a goal of one day representing Canada at the international level – he has previously taken part in an under-20 development camp and toured Uruguay and Chile with the Canada Maple Leafs, a rugby sevens development squad.

And as someone who plans to use the game of rugby to help him see the world, he is hopeful that an opportunity to play overseas emerges.

While he is appreciative of the grounding he got in club rugby with the Saracens, he’s not sure it would have been enough on its own to jump-start his career.

“It’s a good club but it wasn’t what I needed to get to where I am now,” he says. “I needed to train with the Blues and everything and sort of play at a higher level. So I’m not sure if I would have been able to make that jump on my own without that opportunity to train with the Blues, which came from TIRF.”

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