It’s been 34 months since Sam Malcolm’s 77th-minute drop goal gave the Toronto Arrows a 22-20 win over Rugby New York at Lamport Stadium, sealing a playoff berth in the club’s inaugural Major League Rugby season.
The Arrows have not played at home since, barring an exhibition game against the Atlantic Selects last October.
But that changes Saturday when the Arrows return to York Lions Stadium to play host to Rugby ATL in their first MLR game in Toronto in 1,035 days.
“It’s going to be a special day, to get back out there on home soil and play in front of our fans and family,” said Malcolm, a New Zealander who runs the Arrows offence from fly half. “We’ve spoken about enjoying the occasion but not letting it get in the way of how we play.
“It’s exciting. We can’t wait.”
Mark Winokur, Toronto’s COO and GM, calls being home “a surreal feeling, to be honest.”
He expects Saturday’s game may draw a crowd “half to two-thirds” of the 4,800 capacity at York Lions Stadium.
While Malcolm calls Whanganui – located on the south tip of New Zealand’s North Island – home, he will actually have family on hand Saturday.
His sister, who dates Rugby ATL back and fellow Kiwi Te Rangatira Waitokia, is in town for the match.
Atlanta seems a fitting choice of opposition given the Arrows shared their facilities during the 2021 season when Toronto set up shop in Marietta, Ga., owing to pandemic-related travel restrictions. The previous season shut down in March, 2020, after just five games – all on the road for the Arrows – as the sports world ground to a halt owing to COVID-19.
Toronto has played 29 straight regular-season and playoff games on the road since the June 2, 2019, regular-season finale, posting a 13-16 record (they also played a preseason game at Old Glory DC prior to his season). The closest thing to a home game came Feb. 11 when the Arrows hosted the defending champion Los Angeles Giltinis in Langford, B.C., in the second game of the 2022 season.
The contest, won 31-16 by the Giltinis, was officially designated as a Toronto home game.
The Arrows are no stranger to travel. Even in normal times, their schedule is front-end loaded with road matches owing to Canadian winter and the early-February start to the MLR season.
The 2022 campaign started with seven matches away from Toronto, including the Langford contest. Seven of the Arrows’ remaining nine games are at home.
Toronto (4-3-0) has won four of its past five, including a 14-10 victory at Rugby New York last time out. Rugby ATL (5-2-0) is coming off a 41-27 loss to the visiting New England Free Jacks that snapped a three-game win streak.
The Arrows resurgence is all the more impressive given the injuries the team had to deal with. Twelve players – four forwards and eight backs – were unavailable last week owing to injury.
“It’s been just crazy stuff,” Winokur said. “Guys bending over to stretch and their back goes. Guys just jogging for a ball and their hamstring goes.”
But the team’s depth has come through.
“I’ve been really impressed with how we’ve dealt with it as a collective,” Malcolm said of the injuries. “Players have been given opportunities and I feel each player that has entered the team has really put their hand up.”
Toronto announced this week that utility forward Mason Flesch will miss the remainder of the season after undergoing reconstructive surgery to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament.
Brock Webster, who signed a short-term contract in mid-February to help with the club’s lengthy injury list, has returned to the Canadian sevens team ahead of the resumption of the HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series. The 21-year-old back from Uxbridge, Ont., who has earned five caps with the Canadian 15s team, scored three tries in five matches with the Arrows.
Rugby ATL will prove to be a stiff test. Atlanta sports the league’s top offence with 212 points in seven games and ranks second in the overall standings with 28 points, two behind the New England Free Jacks (6-1-0).
Toronto and Atlanta play for the Fire and Ice Cup, a rivalry that “originated as a tribute to the incredible bond that has developed” between the two teams because of their shared home last year. Atlanta won the inaugural edition of the cup last May, defeating Toronto 33-29.
But since the cup can only be reclaimed if won in the home stadium of the last year’s winner, it won’t come into play until the teams meet May 28 in Atlanta.
Note: The Arrows say wearing masks at their home game is “voluntary, yet strongly recommended.”