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Toronto Arrows rugby player Tomas De La Vega.

Jeff Chan/Handout

Like so many other university students across the world, Tomas De La Vega often needed a little pick-me-up while he was burning the midnight oil completing his law degree a few years back.

So he did what so many other South Americans do on a daily basis – he put on the kettle.

But the Toronto Arrows forward wasn’t interested in making any old cup of Joe. He was reintroducing himself to mate, a herbal tea made of yerba mate that is ubiquitous in his native Argentina and neighbouring countries, with his countrymen consuming an average of five kilograms of it each year per person.

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Now entering his second season with the Major League Rugby team, De La Vega, along with the seven other South Americans on the roster, are bringing their rugby know-how to the fledgling North American professional rugby union circuit, while getting their teammates hooked on mate (pronounced mat-ay) in the process.

“Of course they were curious at the beginning when they saw us drinking herbal tea, but in a different cup with a straw,” De La Vega says. “Some of the boys tried. Some of them also asked us if we could bring some mate kits for them from Argentina.”

With its distinctive gourd drinking container and bombilla, or straw, mate is no stranger to athletic circles, with the likes of soccer superstars Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez regularly seen carrying their mate cups when they disembark team buses on their way to the stadium.

It’s rapidly becoming a frequent sight among Arrows players as well. De La Vega lists teammates such as Canadian hooker Andrew Quattrin and the New Zealand duo of Tayler Adams and Spencer Jones among those who have fallen under mate’s spell. He adds that it’s a good fit for rugby players, providing a boost similar to coffee, but without the jittery feeling that coffee sometimes imparts.

“I think it’s very good because it gives you [something] kind of similar to the caffeine and it’s called mateine and it gives you good energy, it pumps you up,” he says. “So, it’s very good in the morning, when you have to go to train early.”

Arrows general manager Mark Winokur, the man who began the influx of South American talent with the signing of Uruguayan winger Leandro Leivas before the 2019 season, says it can be a little strange seeing the abrupt osmosis of North and South American cultures.

“I find it amusing,” he says. “I don’t think that they’re going to all become addicts, but it is kind of funny to come down to the team room and see Kolby Francis from Brantford and Pat Lynott from Chelsea, Que., sitting there drinking mate.”

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Winokur – a committed coffee man – is more interested in seeing what the South American contingent can do on the pitch. As have other Arrows supporters, he’s been waiting more than a year to see the team play an actual game, with MLR cancelling its 2020 season exactly one year ago on Friday. That wait ends Saturday when the Arrows play Rugby ATL in suburban Atlanta in their MLR opener.

While it is technically an away game for the Arrows, the team will be sharing facilities with the Georgia-based MLR team until Canadian government and health authorities allow cross-border travel and the ability to play games in Canada again.

The increase in the Arrows’ South American contingent will not come at the expense of developing Canadian talent, however. The team’s group of Uruguayans and Argentines has increased to eight this season from three last year, although fullback Juan Cruz Gonzalez didn’t make the travelling party, which departed Thursday morning.

“Our prime directive is to develop Canadian rugby players,” Winokur says. “Having said that, it is also a business and you need to be successful. So, you know, where we go offshore is because we need it. We need to fill some gaps where Canadians either aren’t available or aren’t ready.”

That influx of offshore talent can also help speed the development of Canadian players. Case in point is new fullback Joaquin Tuculet, the former Argentina international, who won 56 caps for his country and played in both the 2015 and 2019 Rugby World Cups for the Pumas, scoring four tries in six matches.

Toronto Arrows rugby player Joaquin Tuculet.

Handout

Although he’s only been in Canada a few weeks, taking part in just a few training sessions, Winokur says Tuculet is already at “a level above” what MLR has seen before. The back began his professional career in 2011, and has turned out for Sale Sharks in the English Premiership, as well as teams in France and Wales, before most recently playing for Argentina’s lone Super Rugby franchise, Los Jaguares.

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“Honestly, you know, he looks like a man amongst children in some cases because it’s just his decision making, his vision, his athletic ability and his professionalism and, you know, that I think will raise other guys around him,” Winokur says.

De La Vega was a prime reason behind Tuculet’s decision to sign with Toronto, with the two first playing together for Argentina’s junior World Cup team 10 years ago. Tuculet has two young children, and the Arrows have been able to accommodate both players’ families in the relocation to Georgia.

“I talked a lot with Tommy too,” Tuculet says. “He spoke to me [and said good things] about the club, the players, the values of the club and the people who work there.”

Winokur was surprised as anyone when his cellphone rang and it was Tuculet on the other end, saying he would never have gone out and recruited a player such as the former Pumas star because he never thought the Arrows would be able to sign him. But the two talked, and when it became apparent that the Argentine was looking more to make a change for his family, rather than it being strictly about money, the two sides found a fit.

Of course, Tuculet packed his mate kit when he flew down to Atlanta on Thursday, ensuring that he can keep both the mate as well as the conversation flowing while he gets to know his new teammates.

“Because we are Argentinian, we are South American we drink mate,” he says. “That’s one excuse to talk with the other players and now, maybe, we know too much [about] them.”

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That team chemistry will be on full display Saturday. And while there is certain to be mate consumed before the game, after the match, it’s likely to be something stronger, whatever the outcome.

“We go for beers too,” De La Vega says.

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