29 Nov 2021 | 10:47
As the anticipation for the 2022 Major League Rugby season continues to build, MLR correspondent Joe Harvey spoke to the Toronto Arrows about how they are building towards the new campaign.
Having spent the entirety of the 2021 season away from Canada, the team are now back in Toronto and looking forward to playing out a full season without disruption.
SPENDING THE YEAR ABROAD
A month before the 2021 MLR season was due to commence, the Toronto Arrows announced that they would be establishing a base in Atlanta for the 2021 season.
Due to the ongoing global pandemic, the team had little option other than to at least start the season in the United States.
In the end the team had to spend the entire season in the USA, the border between the two countries remaining closed for extended periods, making the potential for teams to travel to and from Toronto all the harder.
Away from friends and family for the better part of half a year, the team had to become accustomed to living out of a hotel in Marietta for all that time. Playing home games at Rugby ATL’s Lupo Family Field, as well as at NOLA’s Gold Mine, finishing at the foot of the Eastern Conference.
“It was tremendously challenging and unpleasant and difficult and there were no positives to take from it, other than; it allowed us to survive as a franchise,” Mark Winokur, General Manager, told majorleague.rugby.
“Without that solution, we would have been unable to play. If we couldn’t play, we would have had to dissolve the team and, as I said to the owners; if we did that, we would never be able to put that egg back together again. We would have to start again from scratch.
“In the first two years we had built up a pretty good track record. We felt like we were on the right road and just abandoning that to have to start over again or not, didn’t seem like a good option for us.
“We committed to doing it and it was worse and harder than anybody had anticipated, but it was about survival, and we did survive.”
For 25-year-old lock forward Adrian Wadden, 2021 was his first taste of professional rugby. A graduate of the Ontario Blues program, Wadden had spent three years in England where he attended Leeds Beckett University, playing for the university’s rugby team, reaching the BUCS Super Rugby Final in 2019.
A Mississauga-native, Wadden played 14 games in his debut year and scored one try along the way. Certainly a tough introduction to life in MLR, the forward saying that the extended period away was taxing.
“It was definitely a challenge,” Wadden said. “I think we went into it with a positive attitude, and we were trying to be as positive as we could about the situation.
“We decided to just get on with it and do our best with the cards we were dealt. Chris Silverthorn (Director of Rugby) said something at the start of the year; that we could look back at this year saying we gave it all, living in a hotel in Atlanta and had a great season or it could all just pile on and get worse and worse.
Photo by Ben Weitz
“I feel like it kind of ended up becoming the latter. It was definitely tough, a lot tougher mentally staying down there a lot longer than originally planned. You come back from training, you are still around the same boys, so it was just mentally draining.
“It is hard when results aren’t going your way either. We came with a lot of big expectations, judging how the boys had done the previous year. It was obviously going to be tough, and we did the best with what we had.”
COMING BACK TO TORONTO
Going back home at the season’s end, the team met with support staff and fans at CRAFT Beer Market Toronto in mid-August, engaging with their fans for the first time since January 2020.
Wadden met some members of staff for the first time and got to meet fans who had been cheering him on for an entire season from afar. Just over two months later, for the first time in 867 days, Toronto hosted a home game.
Their last was in 2019 where they beat Rugby United New York 22-20 at Lamport Stadium. Playing their 2022 home games at the York Lions Stadium, there is much optimism for all associated with the team.
Playing the Atlantic Selects, Toronto subjected their visitors to a 57-10 defeat at York Lions Stadium, providing an entertaining day out for their loyal supporters who had waited far too long to see their team play in the flesh.
But, given the difficulties of the most recent season, Winokur believes that much can be taken from the hardships that 2021 offered.
“If you look at that New England game, it was meaningless and we were struggling in it,” Winokur said, “we had a center playing at flanker, a scrum-half playing at fly-half, a center playing at full-back and a winger playing at center.
“It was just nuts how much adversity we had to deal with. We got through it pretty credibly and none of it will be duplicated either.
“You can’t say you took a whole bunch of lessons out of that, because we are not going to play another season in a foreign country and live in a hotel, so I think the only lesson we can take out of it is to how to deal with adversity, then that is great. That will help.”
THOUGHTS AHEAD OF 2022
On November 9th, MLR released the schedules for all 13 teams competing in the 2022 season. The new season will kick off in early February, with Toronto starting their campaign on the west coast against two-time champions the Seattle Seawolves.
A week later, the Arrows will be playing one of their home games in Langford, British Columbia, where they will host the LA Giltinis. Back playing in Toronto in early April, Toronto will host 2021 runners-up Rugby ATL, all of these fixtures something to look forward to for Wadden and his teammates.
“I think that will be really exciting,” Wadden said. “In terms of the Seattle opener, I haven’t played there, but I have heard really good things about their fans.
“It will be fun to play in Langford, because a lot of the Canada boys, before the Arrows, were living out west and a lot of the boys had been training there and living there for a long time, so we all have friends out there and know a lot of people in the community.
Photo by Ben Weitz
“Toronto will be the big one. Coming back from Leeds (where Wadden attended university) and boarding that plane to Toronto, that was a big goal and the motivation to come back from England.
“It has been a long time coming. I am really excited for it.”
In the team’s short history, adversity has been something that the Arrows have had to deal with regularly.
Winokur has been at the heart of Toronto’s plans for 2022, re-signing Gaston Mieres, Wadden, Lucas Rumball, Spencer Jones, Ross Braude, Sam Malcolm, Guiseppe du Toit, Ronan Foley, Cole Keith, Will Kelly, Andrew Quattrin, Jack McRogers, Ollie Nott and Marc-Antoine Ouellet and acquiring Canada international Kyle Baillie from NOLA.
Hoping that 2022 will yield more success for the team on the field, Winokur says that playing a full season at home can be a catalyst for his team.
“2022 will be the first normal year that this franchise has experienced,” Winokur said. “We got the franchise on November 1st 2018, to kick off on January 26th 2019, so had 77 days to put a team on the field. That was year one.
“In year two we got cut off after five games, all of which were on the road and in year three we played the season out of a hotel in a foreign country.
“This is the first year we can actually have a plan and execute it in the way we want, have some control and have some level playing field with the other teams.
Photo by Jeff Chan
“We are super, super excited about it. Just the idea of waking up in your own bed and driving over to the stadium and having a game, just like we did the other day.
“I think the guys were pretty emotional about it to be honest, just for us to get back to the same playing field that everybody else has had all this time.”