The Toronto Arrows have become Canada’s first professional rugby union side.
The Arrows, a beefed-up offshoot of the Ontario Blues regional squad that plays in the Canadian Rugby Championship, will begin play in Major League Rugby in January.
Season 2 of the North American league will kick off its 2019 season with nine teams: Austin, Tex., Houston, Glendale, Colo., New Orleans, Rugby United New York, San Diego, Seattle, Salt Lake City and Toronto.
Canada already has a pro rugby league team in the Toronto Wolfpack. Debuting in 2017, the Wolfpack currently play the 13-man version of the game in England’s second-tier Betfred Championship. Rugby union and rugby league are two different versions of the sport.
Arrows co-founder Bill Webb’s investor group includes former NHL executive Brian Burke, now a TV hockey pundit. A member of Rugby Canada’s board of directors, Burke is a fan of the sport that he started playing as a law student.
Webb says the addition of Toronto makes MLR “a truly North American professional rugby league whose time has come.”
Rugby Canada chief executive Allen Vansen called it “a monumental day for North American rugby and one that is immensely important for Rugby Canada’s aspirations for the growth of our game in Canada and for our men’s 15s national senior team.”
Vancouver has also expressed interest in joining the league, with Karl Harrison of North Star Rugby leading the way.
The MLR says Atlanta, Boston and Washington will join the league in 2020.
The Canadian winter will force the Arrows to open on the road with home games featuring in the second half of the season, which runs into early July. While details are still being finalized, York University looks to be their likely home.
Webb, the chief investment officer at Waypoint Investment Partners, played for the Brantford Harlequins and Wilfrid Laurier University and is also member of the Rugby Canada board.
Other Arrows investors include Boat Rocker Sports (a division of Boat Rocker Media), Duncan McNaughton, an assistant coach with the Canadian women’s team and the Queen’s University men’s team, Kevin Reed of AR3 Capital and John Ferraro of Mass Marketing Inc.
The team’s general manager and vice-president is Mark Winokur, long-time manager of the Ontario Blues and Canadian senior men’s team.
“The Arrows are committed to playing a high-tempo, physical and entertaining style of rugby that will excite current rugby fans and draw new fans to the game. In short – real Canadian rugby,” Winokur said in a statement.
MLR featured seven teams in its inaugural 2018 season: Austin, Houston, Glendale, New Orleans, San Diego, Seattle and Salt Lake City.
The Seattle Seawolves won the inaugural title, defeating the Glendale Raptors 23-19 in July in San Diego. The Seawolves lineup included Canadians Ray Barkwill, George Barton, Cam Polson, Brock Staller and Canada captain Phil Mack, who doubles as a Seattle assistant coach.
Other Canadians who played in the MLR’s first season included Hubert Buydens and Eric Howard, who both suited up for the NOLA (New Orleans) Gold.
The Arrows are coached by Chris Silverthorn.
Eight members of the Arrows were named to Canada’s 34-man long list for the Rugby World Cup repechage tournament later this month in France. They are Paul Ciulini, Guiseppe du Toit, Cole Keith, Kainoa Lloyd, Pat Parfrey, Lucas Rumball, Djustice Sears-Duru and Mike Sheppard.
The Arrows debuted in September, 2017 in a 41-7 loss in Colorado to Glendale. The team has gone 5-3-1 this year, with two of the losses coming to a Canada Selects squad in May.
The Ontario side is coming off a 40-14 win over the New England Free Jacks on Oct. 20 in Halifax.
The Arrows avenged their opening loss to Glendale with a 40-18 decision in September in Toronto. They also tied the Houston SaberCats 28-28 on March 3 and beat the Utah Warriors 24-20 on April 6.
In the fall of 2017, Webb and a group of fellow rugby enthusiasts decided to fund a team for an exhibition season to see if a pro team was viable.
While Webb and his partners took care of the travel costs and expenses, the players were not paid during the testing-out process. They will be in MLR.
Similar to Major League Soccer, MLR owners buy an equal stake in the league with regular capital calls. The investment will be in the millions over a five-year period, according to Webb.
Players are contracted to the league with teams operating under a salary cap.