Regardless of the sport played, it’s fair to say that 32 months is a long time between home games.
After 23 straight road games, however, the Toronto Arrows will finally play a sort of “home game” on Friday night when they entertain the Los Angeles Giltinis at Starlight Stadium in Langford, B.C., in what will be the first game of Major League Rugby. game organized in the province.
Given everything that’s happened since the Arrows last played a meaningful game on Canadian soil 985 days ago on June 2, 2019, the only MLR franchise north of the border is understandably looking forward to it. to launch.
First there was the incomplete 2020 season, which was halted after five games in response to COVID-19 before being officially called off. Then the Arrows – who had gone 15-6 combined in their first two regular seasons – decided to play in suburban Atlanta for the 2021 season, where they went 5-11 and finished last. of the Eastern Conference.
“These guys went through something that no other rugby team in history has gone through, to my knowledge,” said Bill Webb, co-founder and chairman of Arrows. “…You are stuck in this hotel, in the middle of a pandemic, in a state where the thing was raging. Playing, you know, in front of no fans, closed border, no chance for your friends and family to visit you. It was brutal.”
Serotonin levels in the Arrows’ camp didn’t improve much when the Canadian men’s national team, made up of 10 players from Toronto on the match-day squad, lost to Chile last October and missed out on qualifying. for the Rugby World Cup for the first time.
It’s not too surprising, then, that the Arrows are hoping a homecoming can spark a change in their fortunes – even more so after last Sunday’s 21-8 loss to the Seattle Seawolves in their season opener. 2022.
Any change will have to come with a new voice at the helm, with Peter Smith, the team’s former offensive coach for the past three seasons, having taken over from Chris Silverthorn as head coach.
At just 32, the Aussie is not only MLR’s youngest manager, he’s also a junior under new captain Mike Sheppard, 33. Youth-style head coaches are nothing new, of course, but the Arrows are hoping Smith can emulate Los Angeles Rams head coach Sean McVay (leading his team to his second Super Bowl at 36 ), rather than former Chicago Blackhawks head coach Jeremy Colliton (hired at 33, fired at 36).
An underlying factor in many of these youth appointments is the idea, or hope, that today’s athletes get along better with coaches who are not too far off being in their own crampons. Smith certainly ticks that box, having finished his playing career in 2018, when he helped Seattle win the first MLR championship.
The first-time head coach hopes his recent playing experience, as well as his knowledge of the league, will come in very handy.
“Technically, tactically the game is always changing, the game is always changing,” he said. “So to be fresh, having played – or in the last four years having played – you’re well aware of the trends, where the game is going and what you need to be successful.”
Smith, who has traveled extensively, played professional rugby in Wales and Japan, as well as dabbled in punting for the University of Central Missouri and kicking in arena football, knows his Playing days are now well behind him. So while it might be an advantage for his players to be able to relate to him based on his age, he needs to be able to draw a line.
“I don’t participate in any of that off-pitch stuff or join [them in] the gym or something,” he said. “There must be a separation between the player and the coach.”
Arrows chief executive Mark Winokur describes his new head coach as a “thorough and detail-oriented” person, and stresses that the relationships the Aussie has forged with playing staff bode well. 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.
“He’s a promising young coach,” Winokur said. “We want to keep it and we want some continuity. We felt we had to give him more to do or he would find an opportunity elsewhere.
The season spent in Marietta, Georgia really impressed the Arrows’ brain trust on the need to develop good chemistry within the team, so the play team’s off-season transformation emphasized on the arrival of “guys of good character”, Winokur mentioned.
“We felt like most guys handled adversity pretty well last year,” he added. “And the ones that didn’t, you know, we felt we had to move on, so we based a lot of our selections on character.”
As a result, more than a dozen players have left the Arrows, including veterans such as former Argentina World Cup star Joaquin Tuculet, and Canada international Ben LeSage, who will face his former team on Friday as a member of reigning champion Giltinis.
But while the Arrows hope to turn things around on the pitch this season, they have also strengthened their organization, expanding 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 talent eligible for Canada.
One of those players was revealed on Thursday, as the team announced the signing of scrum-half Chris Bell, who has played for Cambridge University for four years and is eligible to play for Canada through of his father, born in Montreal. .
The Arrows hope 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, at both club and national team level, it is essential that the most distant sources of talent can be discovered and developed.
“We place great importance on identifying players for the next generation of Canadians who will take us back to the World Cup,” Winokur said.