Canada’s first foray into professional rugby union, as represented by the Toronto Arrows, saw Major League Rugby play its first game on Canadian soil this afternoon at York University’s Lions Stadium. While the Arrows suffered a narrow loss to New Orleans Gold by 35-31, as an event it was definitely something to savor. We were delighted to be there and felt it heralded a bright start to the growth of professional rugby in this country. Toronto have played their first eight games away from home, and their remaining eight of the season will be played in Toronto in order to fit around the vagaries of Toronto winter weather in February and March.
Sunday’s match saw Toronto play their first game in front of their home fans against current Major League Rugby’s top ranked team, New Orleans or NOLA Gold as they are known as. It was a sellout crowd and despite problems with the scoreboard keeper clearly having difficulty understanding the scoring etiquette of rugby union, leading to some interesting scores posted early in the match, Toronto’s first home game was clearly a big hit with an enthusiastic and very vocal sellout crowd of 3,081.
Toronto came out of the blocks firing on all cylinders and would get the first points on the board in just two minutes through an excellent try out wide from winger Dan Moor. From there NOLA would hit back and put in a solid shift for the next 12 minutes which would see them score three tries. The first was a penalty try at the seven minute mark after some solid defence up front from Toronto but their discipline started to take a hit in what was proving to be a very physical challenge being put in by both sides. To be honest we felt the refereeing at times seemed slightly off the mark, with some calls clearly not going Toronto’s way. In a few instances this gave way to some justified righteous indignation from Captain and number 8 Lucas Rumball, who himself was the subject of one slightly suspect call which ultimately would contribute to the buildup towards NOLA’s first points on the board through a penalty try.
With the scores level, NOLA bagged two quick and relatively soft tries. The first from NOLA fullback JP Eloff exposed some of Toronto’s defensive frailties out wide, while the second from South African born centre Tristan Blewett was a gift as Arrows fly half Sam Malcolm threw a wildly speculative cutout pass that was superbly read by the NOLA centre.
Toronto however was clearly having the advantage in the scrum as a series of scrum penalties went their way. They used their set piece dominance to full advantage and ultimately released Uruguayan fullback Gaston Mieres out wide in the corner for their second try, even if some of the passing seemed slightly overambitious at times – a characteristic that typified much of Toronto’s first half. While it certainly thrilled the home crowd with an exciting display of free-flowing attacking rugby at times, it no doubt left the coaching staff with a few more grey hairs.
NOLA would soon hit back and in a period of sustained pressure in Toronto’s 22, prop Ben Tarr would crash over to give the Americans their fourth try and a comfortable lead heading towards half time.
Canadian International and NOLA lock Kyle Baillie would pick up a yellow card for a high tackle with five minutes to go in the half, forcing NOLA to see out the half with just fourteen men. Toronto would use it to their advantage to strike back once more through Mieres in the last act of the first half, as the flying Uruguayan showed off some fancy footwork to dot the ball down in the corner once more off the back of a Toronto lineout. It had been a frenetic but highly entertaining first half and the crowd had clearly enjoyed it as the teams headed into the break with NOLA in front 28-19. However, Toronto’s organization had let them down at times coupled with some overly ambitious attacking play. They needed to head into the second half looking more structured and better organized defensively.
Toronto had to score first in the second half and proceeded to do just that. After some solid pressure on NOLA, which showed Toronto’s physicality count once more, scrum half Andrew Ferguson would get the Arrows fourth try off the back of a scrum after Toronto had spent much of the first ten minutes camped in NOLA’s 22. At 26-28 it was definitely game on and the home crowd really began to get behind the Arrows.
Another solid passage of play from Toronto would see prop Morgan Mitchell crash over for Toronto’s fifth try and put the home side in the lead at 31-28. Toronto looked tighter and much better organised in the second half, and their defence for the most part was outstanding particularly in midfield. However, it needed to be as from this point on NOLA slowly started to exert a stranglehold on the match and were beginning to dominate the possession stakes.
NOLA were still being made to do all the hard work despite having more of the possession and were continuing to have to run from deep, with Toronto effectively shutting down their assaults on the halfway mark. However, with five minutes to go, NOLA managed to find some chinks in the Arrows armor. Some poor discipline at the end under pressure would ultimately see Toronto concede the try that would see their first home game end in a loss, as NOLA fly half Scott Gale would find the gap that up to that point had been eluding his side close to the try line. At the final whistle NOLA would emerge the victors 35-31 but knew they had been made to work for every inch of it in a highly entertaining match that provided a worthy spectacle as the Arrows first home game. Had Toronto been slightly more effective in converting their tries from the kicking tee, then it could easily have been a draw, as NOLA managed to slot all their shots at goal.
Despite the loss there is no doubt that Toronto’s first home game can be classed as a raging success. The loud and enthusiastic local support was there for everyone to see, and the team rose to the occasion. They were unlucky to lose, but to hold the top team in the league as close as they did, will surely mean that with a run of seven home games till the knockout stages, the next two months should be very productive for the Arrows. Boasting a healthy contingent of some of Canadian rugby’s most promising young talent, today’s match was an excellent advertisement for the development of the game in this country and we look forward with great enthusiasm to the remainder of the Toronto Arrows’ promising start in North American professional rugby!