The Toronto Arrows head south Wednesday for the warmer weather of Las Vegas and the final stage of their pre-season as they gear up for their second Major League Rugby campaign.
Season 1 was a success with the team reeling off seven straight wins at home to finish third in the final standings at 11-5-0 before losing 30-17 on the road to the eventual champion Seattle Seawolves in the playoff semifinals.
This year’s squad will have a familiar look, with 28 returning players.
“At the end of the day, the guys vote with their feet,” said Mark Winokur, the Arrows’ vice-president and GM. “They wanted to be here. It wasn’t a hard conversation.
“We’re real happy with the new guys that have come in. They’re great guys and fit into the culture. And look like they’re good rugby players. We’re where we want to be, for sure.”
On Saturday, that was away from a driving rainstorm — putting kids through their paces under the dome at a north Toronto indoor soccer complex. It was a chance to give back to the community with Canada coach Kingsley Jones and former Canada captain Jamie Cudmore, now head of Rugby Canada’s Pacific Pride developmental squad, looking on in approval.
The league has grown to 12 teams for its third season, with the addition of Atlanta’s Rugby ATL, Washington’s Old Glory DC and the New England Free Jacks. For the first time, the league has been split into two conferences with Toronto joining the New Orleans Gold, Rugby United New York and the three newcomers in the East.
Marquee additions for 2020 include South Africa’s World Cup-winning prop Tendai (The Beast) Mtawarira (Old Glory), All Blacks centre Ma’a Nonu (San Diegio Legion) and back Rene Ranger (Colorado Raptors) and French international centre Mathieu Bastareaud (Rugby United New York).
“The attitude in our group is iron sharpens iron,” Arrows winger Dan Moor said of the big-name additions to the league. “We want to be competing against the best players in the world.”
Chris Latham, who won 78 caps for Australia, has taken over the Utah Warriors as coach.
The Arrows had seven players in Jones’ 31-man Rugby World Cup squad with only Luke Campbell not back in the fold. World Cup veterans Lucas Rumball, Cole Keith, Jamie Mackenzie, Andrew Quattrin, Mike Sheppard and Patrick Parfrey are all back. So is Guiseppe du Toit, who joined the World Cup team as a late injury replacement.
Gaston Mieres and Leandro Leivas, part of Uruguay’s World Cup team, are also back.
Toronto has lost prized New Zealand prop Morgan Mitchell to a team in Japan but believe it has a quality replacement in former Australian under-20 player Richie Asiata.
Back-rowers Manuel Diana (a Uruguay World Cup veteran) and Tomas de la Vega (an Argentina international) bolster the pack.
Tayler Adams, a former New Zealand under-20 international and Melbourne Rebel, and Will Kelly of the Pacific Pride offer variety at fly half while allowing incumbent New Zealander Sam Malcolm to move to fullback.
Toronto opens Feb. 9 at the Austin Herd, the first of seven straight road games before the home opener April 4 against Utah. Seven of the nine remaining matches after that are in Toronto.
The Arrows have yet to announce a venue for their first three home games — with a return to York University a possibility — with the final four at Lamport Stadium.
The team averaged around 2,500 at home last season, not bad considering it essentially only had two months lead time to get ready once it was admitted to the league.
“We’re way ahead of last year — on and off the field,” said co-founder and majority owner Bill Webb.
The league is expected to add franchises in Dallas and Los Angeles in 2021 with two more expansion teams to follow, bringing the league up to 16 teams.
MLR is becoming increasingly important to Rugby Canada. Jones says 56 Canadians are currently under contract to the North American league.
“And that goes up daily,” he said.
“Obviously the more players we can have in a daily (pro) training environment, the better it is for all of us — particularly the national team,” he added. “The Arrows are the flagship, flying the flag really well for us.
“I just think the MLR will get better every week, every season. That’s only good for us. It’s got a little way to go but I’m very positive about it.”
Twenty-seven of the 35 Arrows currently under contract are Canadian.
The Arrows take on Utah on Jan. 18 in an exhibition game in Las Vegas. They then face Rugby United New York in a controlled scrimmage Jan. 25 at the Buffalo Bills’ indoor practice facility in Orchard Park, N.Y.