Skip to main content

Whatever sport is being played, it’s fair to say that 32 months is a long time to go between home games.

After 23 consecutive contests on the road, though, the Toronto Arrows will finally play a ‘home’ game of sorts on Friday night when they entertain the Los Angeles Giltinis at Starlight Stadium in Langford, B.C., in what will be the first Major League Rugby game held in the province.

Given all that has happened since the previous time the Arrows played a meaningful match on Canadian soil, 985 days ago, on June 2, 2019, the lone MLR franchise from north of the border is understandably itching to get going.

First there was the incomplete 2020 season, which was paused after five games in response to COVID-19 before being officially cancelled. Then the Arrows – which had gone a combined 15-6 over their first two regular seasons – decided to play out of suburban Atlanta for the 2021 season, where they went 5-11 and finished last in the Eastern Conference.

“These guys went through something that no other rugby team in history has gone through, to my knowledge,” said Bill Webb, the Arrows co-founder and president. “… You’re stuck in this hotel, in the midst of a pandemic, in a state where the thing was running rampant. Playing, you know, in front of no fans, closed border, no ability for your friends and family to visit. It was brutal.”

The serotonin levels in the Arrows’ camp hardly improved when the Canadian men’s national team, featuring 10 Toronto players in the match-day squad, lost to Chile last October to miss out on qualification for the Rugby World Cup for the first time.

So it’s not overly surprising that the Arrows are hoping a return home can spark a change in their fortunes – even moreso after last Sunday’s 21-8 loss at the Seattle Seawolves in their 2022 season opener.

Any change will have to come with a new voice at the helm, with Peter Smith, the team’s former attack coach from the past three seasons, having taken over from Chris Silverthorn as head coach.

At just 32 years of age, the Australian is not only the youngest coach in MLR, he’s also on the junior side of his newly appointed captain, 33-year-old Mike Sheppard. Head coaches trending young is nothing new, of course, but the Arrows will be hoping Smith can emulate Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay (leading his team into his second Super Bowl at 36), rather than former Chicago Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton (hired at 33, fired at 36).

One factor underpinning many of these youthful appointments is the idea, or hope, that today’s athletes relate better to coaches who are not too far removed from being in their own cleats. Smith certainly ticks that box, having finished his playing career in 2018, when he helped Seattle win the inaugural MLR championship.

The first-time head coach hopes that recent playing experience, along with his knowledge of the league, will stand him in good stead.

“Technically, tactically, the game’s always evolving, the game’s always changing,” he said. “So to be fresh, coming off playing – or within sort of the last four years coming off playing – you’re well attuned to the trends, where the game is going and what you need to be successful.”

The well-travelled Smith, who played pro rugby in Wales and Japan, as well as trying his hand as a punter for the University of Central Missouri and as a kicker in arena football, knows that his playing days are now well behind him. So as much as it might be an advantage for his players to be able to relate to him age-wise, he needs be able to draw a line.

“I don’t join in any of that off-field stuff or joining [them in] the gym or anything like that,” he said. “There’s got to be a separation between player and coach.”

Arrows general manager Mark Winokur describes his new head coach as a “thorough, detail-oriented” person, and points to the relationships that the Australian has built up with the playing staff as offering good portents. Much like other young coaches and executives in other sports, there was pressure to tap into Smith’s potential, before another team came along that would do the same.

“This is a promising young coach,” Winokur said. “We want to keep him around and we want some continuity. We felt like we need to give him more to do or he will find an opportunity elsewhere.”

The season spent in Marietta, Ga., really impressed on the Arrows brain trust the need to develop good chemistry among the team, so the off-season makeover of the playing squad placed a premium on bringing in “good-character guys,” Winokur said.

“We felt like, most of the guys handled the adversity last year pretty well,” he added. “And the ones that didn’t, you know, we felt like we needed to move on from so we’ve based a lot of our selections on character.”

As a result, more than a dozen players have departed the Arrows, including veterans such as former Argentine World Cup star Joaquin Tuculet, and Canadian international Ben LeSage, who will face his old team on Friday as a member of the defending champion Giltinis.

But while the Arrows hope to turn things around on the pitch this season, they have also beefed up as an organization, growing their player-development and talent-identification staff. Former head coach Silverthorn has taken on a new role as director of player development, and will work with Winokur and Webb to identify new Canada-eligible talent.

One such player was unveiled Thursday, as the team announced the signing of scrum-half Chris Bell, who has been playing for the University of Cambridge the past four years, and is eligible to play for Canada through his father, who was born in Montreal.

The Arrows will be hoping Bell can follow a similar trajectory to fellow scrum-half Ross Braude, who was born in South Africa but joined the Arrows last year and made his Canadian national team debut last July.

For the future of Canadian rugby, both at club and national-team levels, it’s vital that the far-flung sources of talent can be unearthed and developed.

“We’re putting a big premium on player identification for the next generation of Canadians that are going to get us back to the World Cup,” Winokur said.

Your Globe

Build your personal news feed

Follow the author of this article:

Follow topics related to this article:

Check Following for new articles