How Arrows could impact Canada's World Cup campaign
It was the 77th minute of the last regular game of the season. The Toronto Arrows were trailing Rugby United New York 19-20 when Arrows flyhalf Sam Malcolm received a pass inside the New York twenty-two metre line from scrumhalf Andrew Ferguson. Sam coolly slotted a drop-goal through the posts.
The pressure-laden kick gave the Arrows a 22-20 win, their seventh in a row, and a place in the play-offs of the North American professional rugby league – the Major League Rugby.
The Toronto Arrows is Canada’s first professional rugby team. The Arrows have recently finished their first season in the MLR. The MLR itself is just two years old, but already there are signs of growth in interest by supporters and the media across North America, and additional teams are scheduled to join the league over the next two years.
In its first season, the Toronto Arrows reached the semi-finals of the MLR competition, only to go down 17-30 to eventual MLR champions, the Seattle Seawolves. That game could have gone either way, and the Arrows had defeated Seattle 29-7 in the regular season.
With the emergence and success of the Toronto Arrows, a new and exciting era has begun in Canadian rugby.
Photo credit: Toronto Arrows/José Romelo Lagman
Origin of the Toronto Arrows
The “genesis of the Toronto Arrows” said President and co-founder Bill Webb, were discussions that he and the Arrows Vice President and General Manager Mark Winokur had in the summer of 2017. At the time, Mark, with decades of playing, coaching and managing rugby behind him, was the GM of the (amateur) Ontario Blues rugby team. The Blues had been challenged to a match by the Glendale Raptors of Colorado.
Glendale wanted to play the Blues as part of their preparations for what was to be the inaugural season of the MLR. The Ontario Blues would be a stiff challenge, having won six of the last eight Canadian Rugby Championships.
Mark accepted the challenge and Glendale flew up to Toronto to play the Blues.
Bill Webb was at the game. He recalls that the Blues won the game “very handily.” (Score was 43-25). Although he and Mark didn’t know one another at the time, they got talking. Bill asked if Mark thought they could establish a professional rugby team in Toronto. “Absolutely” was Mark’s reply.
In addition to playing, coaching and then getting his two young sons into rugby, Bill Webb had also recently served on the Board of Rugby Canada. Bill is an entrepreneur with his own investment management company. He talked with his colleagues in the investment banking circles, which included a number of rugby fans, about the possibility of starting a professional rugby team in Toronto.
Glendale and the Blues decided to have a rematch later in 2017 (which Glendale won). Bill went along with Mark when Toronto flew to Colorado for the rematch. While they were there, they met with the Commissioner of the newly formed MLR and discussed the possibility of joining the league. In 2018 while the MLR was in its first season, Toronto played a number of exhibition games, including some against the professional MLR teams. From these games, it was evident that a Toronto team could be quite competitive.
Bill talked some more with his investment management friends. A partnership was formed which provided the financial backing for the Arrows. Bill became President and Co-Founder and Mark became Vice-President and General Manager. In July of 2018, they filed all the required documentation to officially join the MLR for the 2019 season. In November they were notified their application was successful. The Toronto Arrows first professional season would start just two months later in January 2019.
That is not a lot of time to create all the structures and processes for a new organizational entity, hire staff, get facilities, start promoting and marketing the team, and so on. Equally if not more importantly, the new team needed to be assembled.
Photo credit: Mark Janzen
The core of the team came from the Ontario Blues. Twenty-eight of the 41-player squad were from the province of Ontario, with seven members from other parts of Canada. In addition, building on relationships with overseas teams such as the Super XV team, the Wellington Hurricanes from New Zealand, and England’s Saracens, the Arrows were able to find New Zealanders’ flyhalf Sam Malcolm from Manawatu and tighthead prop Morgan Mitchell from Southland, Jack Nay from Tunbridge Wells, England and Jack Evans from Llandovery, Wales. A huge boost to the team included the Uruguayan speedsters in the backline, Gastón Mieres and Leandro Leivas, both of whom are members of their national team.
Co-captain of the team, Winger Dan Moor, returned from playing professional rugby in England to play for the Arrows. “It was a really cool opportunity to build something,” said Dan. He had played several seasons for the Ontario Blues before heading to Oxford University for his Masters. While there he played for Oxford including in its historical annual match with Cambridge University at Twickenham.
Although each MLR team is allowed to field up to ten international players, the Arrows have wanted to get the right balance of those players with the local Canadian talent. The Canadian players can learn substantially from the experience of the international players, which, in turn, will help the growth of Canadian rugby. As Mike Sheppard, a six-foot-four Arrows lock and Canadian team member noted “you’re enhancing the Canadian talent pool this way.”
If you know anything about Canadian winters you will appreciate that trying to play rugby in January in Toronto in temperatures often well below zero degrees Celsius, is not the way to develop a fan base, or recruit and retain players, or be seen as a favourable destination for American teams.
Consequently, the Toronto Arrows played their first eight games away from home in the warmer climates of the American teams. While they won some of their games away it was the home games, starting in April, where the team really found its form, ending the regular season by winning seven games in a row.
One benefit of playing their first eight games away was that it pulled the players together. In addition, the former Ontario Blues players had already played together for years. They had formed an indelible bond of trust, respect and friendship. This provided the foundation of the Arrows culture as a team, and as an organization. As Mark Winokur explained, “culture and character triumph over skills all the time.”
Mike Sheppard said that “the biggest success factor was the team’s culture, it’s team cohesion. We had a core bunch of fellas that just got along with one another.” Dan Moor added that the team was “a bunch of down to earth, humble guys. The guys came with a great attitude, low egos and enjoyed each others company.”
Despite an age range of 19 to 36, “it’s a young team with a lot of Canadian content”, said Dan Moor. He added that “we want to push this franchise so that it will be winning championships … we’ll have a good off-season and come back as contenders next year.”
“The boys are very happy with what we accomplished in the season,” said owner Bill Webb. The ideal, of course, would have been winning the North American championship. They came very close, but it was not to be. Nonetheless, it was still a successful season for the new team and there is a high level of optimism about what may be possible next season.
Photo credit: David Chant
Major League Rugby
The MLR was officially launched in April 2018. The MLR, it notes on its website, “will be the pinnacle of North American rugby, and provide a rallying point for local communities, a focal point for North American rugby fans, and an aspirational destination for young athletes.” The MLR states that in only its second year more than forty international players from over fifteen countries play in the league. That number will likely increase in the oncoming years as new franchises join the MLR. In addition to the Toronto Arrows, current teams include Austin Elite (Texas), Glendale Raptors (Colorado), Houston SaberCats (Texas), New Orleans Gold (Mississippi), San Diego Legion (California), Seattle Seawolves (Washington State), Utah Warriors (Utah) and Rugby United New York (New York). In 2020, three new teams will be added – New England Free Jacks (Boston), Rugby ATL (Atlanta, Georgia) and Old Glory DC (Washington DC) – and others will join in 2021.
Implications for Canadian rugby
Both management and players alike are unanimous that the arrival of the Toronto Arrows will significantly impact rugby in Canada by providing access to a high level, competitive rugby every week, by supporting the growth of rugby at the grassroots level, and by raising awareness of the game more generally. “The Arrow’s arrival is massive for Canadian rugby,” said thirty-year-old Mike Sheppard. Dan Moor echoed Mike’s sentiments, “It’s really exciting to think what the Arrows can do for Canadian rugby.”
Over the longer term, “we want to be the place where players want to play in Canada” commented Mark Winokur; the “destination of choice” added Bill Webb. Indeed, one of the mission statements for the Arrows is to build rugby in Canada. For the first time, the Canadian national coach has close to thirty Canadians playing high level, competitive rugby every week for the Arrows (this past season there were 16 regular season games). There are also other Canadians playing for MLR teams based in the United States.
The difference of having competitive rugby every week will be quite noticeable. As Dan Moor explained, in the past, one weekend you could be playing club rugby and the next weekend you find yourself playing the New Zealand Maoris – a significant jump to a different level of rugby. Dan added that he noticed his own game improve significantly when he played thirty-five games in England in just under two years, all of which were at a higher level than you would find in Canada. The competitive professional MLR now enables players to play at the highest level possible in North America.
The Canadian national rugby team’s initial training squad for this year’s Rugby World Cup was announced at the end of the MLR season and featured thirteen Toronto Arrows players, including Mike Sheppard and Dan Moor. Canada is in the same group as New Zealand and South Africa at the RWC, two games that may be out of reach for the team. Canada, however, will be considerably more competitive with the other two teams – Italy (ranked 14th in the world) and Namibia (ranked 23rd) – so don’t be surprised if Canada finishes third place in the group.
While it is too early to claim a significant difference in the game at the national level because of the Arrows, or the MLR, it doesn’t take much to see that come the next Rugby World Cup in France in 2023, the Canadian team will likely be considerably more competitive than it has been as a result of the emergence and anticipated growth of the Toronto Arrows in the professional MLR competition.
Photo Credit: Jeff Chan
Between now and the new season, which starts in February 2020, the strategic plan will be fully developed, more corporate sponsors will be sought and the marketing of the team will continue. Given the success of the first season, especially notable with the extremely short window from joining the league (November) to playing its first match (January), “it’s now a fertile time to work on corporate sponsorships”, said Bill Webb. In addition, the club is actively selling seasons tickets for three years through its Founders Club.
A clear driver over the next few years for the Arrows is that as a professional team it needs to become commercially viable. There is still plenty to do. “It’s a start-up business” explained Mark Winokur, … “We’ve got a runway of three to five years to make a go of it”. “We don’t pretend we have it all figured out,” said Bill Webb, but the success of the first year truly sets the scene for success in the next season.
Mark and Bill want to keep growing the interest in rugby in Toronto, and Canada more generally. They want people who know rugby to bring others to the games and get them to catch the atmosphere and experience, the action and excitement. Unlike many other sports in North America, the players are accessible – kids can meet the players on the field after the game, for example. There is genuine enthusiasm from the people who watch, organize, and play the game.
And there is the more general fact that rugby is getting greater visibility and becoming better known. In part, this is due to Rugby Sevens now being an Olympic Sport. The Canadian men’s and women’s 7’s teams, for example, have already qualified for the Tokyo Olympics next year.
On the future, Vice President and General Manager Mark Winokur probably says it best; simply: “We’re excited”.
There is plenty to be excited about.
* A growing North American professional rugby league;
* A team that knows, feels and believes it can be North American champions;
* A positive organizational culture;
* A growing fan base in the city;
* A talent pool and pipeline that will increase over time as the Toronto Arrows become better known; and,
* An ownership and management team that is committed to making the team success on the field, one that will play a pivotal role in building rugby in Canada while it becomes commercially viable over the long term. Watch this space!
By Malcolm Anderson
* Additional resource: Toronto Arrows website