Elusive it may still be but, after defeating last year’s Champions the Seattle Seawolves 29-7 at York Alumni Field on Sunday, a playoff spot is not completely out of reach for Major League Rugby’s 2019 debutantes the Toronto Arrows. Toronto put on their best show to date since returning to Toronto for the remainder of the MLR season. It was a thrilling encounter that got the 2000 plus crowd on their feet on a regular basis, courtesy of four well worked tries by Toronto which secured them a valuable bonus point in addition to the win.
The match was preceded by an emotional moment as Ray Barkwill, Canada’s veteran hooker, marked his last day as a professional player with an honorary one day contract with the Toronto Arrows. Barkwill who turned out 56 times for Canada decided to call time on an illustrious and proud rugby career. The 38 year-old Niagara Falls native was given a rousing reception and sendoff by the crowd and it is hoped, now that he is back home in Ontario, he will keep a close association with the Arrows and their continued success.
Barkwill himself played for the Seattle Seawolves last year, and the American team boasted some strong Canadian content, most notably in the shape of prop Djustice Sears Duru, flanker Nakai Penny, scrum half Phil Mack and winger Brock Staller – with Staller being one of our Canadian players to watch in 2019.
The first half was a tight affair, but the Arrows looked the more composed and focused side. However, once again the Arrows passing at times looked speculative and they were lucky that the Seawolves did not bring their handling game to Toronto. A few miracle no look passes by Toronto did end up being intercepted by Seattle, but outstanding defense from the Arrows and constant handling errors from the Seawolves ensured that no damage was done, despite center Shalom Suniula looking dangerous all match for the visitors.
Nevertheless Toronto were the dominant side from the outset, with their scrum in particular causing Seattle all kinds of grief. The Arrows continued to be inconsistent at lineout time, but that was the only flaw in an otherwise outstanding performance. A strong breeze was also making kicking and lineout duties a challenge for both sides. Seattle were kicking into the wind in the first half and were having a torrid time making their aerial game translate into any kind of useful territory or possession.
In a tight encounter from both sides, the scoreboard would not turnover until the 25 minute mark. Toronto fly half Sam Malcolm would do the honors for Toronto courtesy of a penalty kick. Five minutes later Toronto’s Uruguayan winger Leandro Leivas would be the subject of Toronto’s only disciplinary blemish, as he was yellow carded for a deliberate knock on. Despite being reduced to 14 men, Toronto’s outstanding defense across the park continued to hold firm and they managed to apply some solid pressure on the visitors, resulting in a superb try for big second rower Michael Sheppard. Malcolm would miss the conversion, but Toronto would end the half 8-0 and clearly looked like they were starting to build some momentum.
On returning to the field after sitting out the last ten minutes of the first half, winger Leivas redeemed himself in spectacular fashion at the start of the second half. Centre Giuseppe du Toit spotted the gap off a lovely pass from replacement scrum half Jamie Mackenzie and Leivas finished the job for Toronto’s second try.
Seattle would strike back in a rare defensive lapse from Toronto, as center Shuniula, who had threatened all match, would be put into some wide open space in the inside channel by Seawolves scrum half Phil Mack. Toronto’s defense in their 22, which had looked dramatically better since their last outings against the Sabrecats and NOLA Gold, would get caught napping and a relatively soft try put Seattle back in the match with eighteen minutes left on the clock.
However, that seemed to be the wake up call Toronto needed and they never let up for the rest of the match. The highlight of the game would come in the 69th minute from Captain and Toronto native Dan Moor. A brilliant break down the right wing off some spilled Seattle ball saw the Arrows Captain put in a flying finish from just outside the Arrows 22 and jot the ball down for Toronto’s third try. The crowd rose as one and for the final 10 minutes Toronto simply allowed Seattle no say in the match.
The icing on the cake would come in the 75th minute, as with Moor once more in the thick of things deep in Seattle’s 22, the ball would work its way out to Canadian International second rower Paul Ciulini, who would effortlessly get the ball down between the posts allowing for an easy conversion. Toronto continued to keep up the pressure till the final whistle and although no further points would come their way, it had been an emphatic second half display from the Arrows. The elation on players and fans faces alike was a joy to watch.
Toronto head into their next match with the San Diego Legion, who currently lead the league, full of confidence after such a solid performance against Seattle. Cut out some of the risky passing, build on what is an excellent defensive platform, consolidate a powerful scrum and tidy up some of the lineout work and Toronto will be a force to reckon with, as they head to Lamport Stadium in Toronto’s Liberty village for their remaining four home games before the playoffs. There is still a long way to go before Toronto can comfortably see themselves securing a spot in the knockout stages, but last Sunday’s performance has made it an achievable ambition once more.
We have really enjoyed the quality of rugby on display, and the enthusiasm of the crowd for Toronto’s latest professional sports venture. Furthermore with so many Canadian Internationals in the Arrows side, it is a lot like getting out there and cheering on the national team, until the franchise can hopefully expand to more Canadian cities. Sunday’s game against San Diego is a high stakes venture for the Arrows, and it is our hope that as many people as possible can come out to support a team that is really starting to click and make their city and country proud. Whatever you’re doing this Sunday, if you love the sport of rugby union and you’re in the Toronto area you know where you need to be!