The Arrows story so far – our Exiles put up a brave fight!

The Arrows 2021 season has so far been a bit of a rollercoaster. Arguably facing more than their fair share of hurdles to be even playing in the tournament at all as the only Canadian franchise, the Arrows have had a promising campaign at times but a glaring lack of consistency is clearly holding them back. With seven games left before the playoffs, they essentially have it all to do if they fancy their chances at post season glory. They are playing some quality rugby and if they can manage to do that week in week out for the next seven weeks, then a shot at the title is not beyond the realms of possibility. However, it will take some pretty steely resolve and just a little bit of luck. Still we’d argue that on paper they are a better team than their mid season results would indicate.

As we’ve said before, this season was never going to be easy for the lads. To be able to play in the tournament at all has meant the entire squad living in a bubble in their temporary new home of Georgia, away from their family and friends for the duration of the tournament. Four months is a long time, and a hardship their colleagues in the rest of the league are not having to contend with. Consequently, we take our hats off to them for ensuring that Canada has a presence this year in a tournament that is already starting to put rugby more on the mainstream sporting landscape in North America. The team has made a huge sacrifice to play this year and give us a Canadian team to cheer for, so celebrate their successes and sympathise when things don’t quite go their way. While this year may not bring the results the Arrows would like there is no denying that it will lay the foundations for an outstanding 2022 season, giving their fans something to really look forward to. This will be made even sweeter by the fact they will have the opportunity to cheer them on in person as the team will once more be able to make Toronto’s Lamport Stadium their home ground.

So let’s have a quick summary of the Arrows nine games to date and what worked and what didn’t.

Game 1 – Rugby Atlanta 21 – Toronto Arrows 14

As season openers go, it wasn’t a bad effort from Toronto. They were unlucky not to get the draw in the dying minutes, after a brilliant run down the right wing from Uruguayan Leandro Leivas who looked just as dangerous as he was in Toronto’s first season in MLR. Unfortunately the winger’s excellent run was brought to a halt just short of the 5 metre line and some gritty defence from Atlanta ground Toronto out of the proceedings. The first half was a feisty physical affair with Atlanta just having the edge in the forward battles which accounted for all five tries scored by both sides. The second half was very much a war of attrition between the two teams until a spark of life from Toronto as the clock ran down, but to be honest the second half was a rather lethargic affair from both sides. Toronto acquitted themselves well for the most part but not having played together for over a year was definitely noticeable.

Game 2 – Utah Warriors 39 – Toronto Arrows 24

The rust that had hampered Toronto getting their game face on against Atlanta, became glaringly apparent in Toronto’s second encounter of the season. The first half was a shambles from Toronto, who looked disjointed and clearly out of sorts with whatever kind of game plan they were trying to implement. They were bossed around up front by Utah and their execution was generally poor. Utah took full advantage and found themselves with a comfortable 20-3 lead at half time. Defensively Toronto had more holes than a block of Swiss cheese and the whole performance made for depressing viewing. After a shaky start to the second half with Utah scoring their third try, someone clearly hit the on switch in the Arrows camp. Captain Lucas Rumball led the charge as he always does and Toronto hit back scoring two well constructed tries in the space of 4 minutes. All of a sudden it was game on with a ten point difference. However, once again Toronto’s defence became hopelessly porous and Utah pulled away. The game got scrappy and to be fair to Toronto, Utah’s discipline was sketchy at the best of times resulting in a red and yellow card for the men from the Rockies. Toronto would use the two man advantage to score a consolation try at the end, but it was hard to overlook their defensive frailties which had allowed Utah to wreak so much havoc for much of the match.

Game 3 – Old Glory 19 – Toronto Arrows 40

Joaquin Tuculet – Definitely a case of money well spent by Toronto

Toronto finally found the mojo that served them so well in the 2019 season in this match and produced a blistering display of return to form as they ran in five tries to Old Glory’s two. They put Old Glory under pressure right from the get go. The defence was tight, the execution was crisp and their forwards dominant allied to some silky running from their backs- in short it looked like the Arrows team that gave us so much to cheer about two years ago. The Arrows South American back line contingent, showed off their pace and their big money signing of Puma fullback Joaquin Tuculet looked to be a very sound investment. With the job well done, the Arrows could be forgiven for taking their foot off Old Glory’s jugular for a few minutes allowing the Washington men to score a consolation try in the dying minutes. Nevertheless it was a sound and heartwarming performance that gave us plenty of grounds for optimism.

Game 4 – Toronto Arrows 16 – LA Giltinis 43

This was a game the Arrows will probably want to forget in a hurry, and is probably the worst performance we’ve seen from them so far this season. In short it wasn’t an attractive game from either side, and hardly a glowing advertisement for the sport. However, Toronto simply failed to show up for this one and what we saw was an intensely scrappy and disjointed performance. One in which we lost count of the handling errors from both sides but particularly from Toronto. The Arrows looked exhausted and frustrated and for the most part like they just didn’t want to be there. Maybe this was a factor of the hardship of a life in exile for four months, but this was one where perhaps the Coaching staff needed to look into the psychological welfare of their charges. Toronto simply didn’t look happy and it was reflected in their performance. We didn’t think the table topping Giltinis played all that well but then sadly they didn’t need to. It was a messy poorly disciplined game not helped by some sloppy officiating at times. In short, not one for the photo album despite a moment of second quarter razzle dazzle from another of Toronto’s Puma imports, winger Manuel Montero. Montero’s try made it onto the number two spot for the MLR’s top five tries of the round, so at least Toronto could find something to put in their 2021 season highlights reel from this match.

Game 5 – Toronto Arrows 52 – Seattle Seawolves 7

Lucas Rumball has embraced the Captaincy and is such a key component of the Arrows core

After the horror show in New Orleans the Arrows came storming back into contention with a 7 try demolition of reigning Champions the Seattle Seawolves. Tuculet was once more back to his best, but it was a complete team performance from Toronto. They just looked sharp from start to finish. Their defence which had been so questionable in the opening four rounds was tight as a drum for this one. The offloading by Toronto’s backs was simply exquisite at times and would not have looked out of place in a top flight match in France. As always Captain and flanker Lucas Rumball led from the front and is such a talisman for his team. If Toronto can put in a string of performances like this then all of a sudden a playoff spot does not look out of the question. This game was a joy to watch and a glorious advertisement for the sport even if it was at the Seawolves expense.

Game 6 – Rugby United New York 12 – Toronto Arrows 53

Toronto’s Mr. Excitement – winger Manuel Montero

If you thought it couldn’t get any better after Toronto’s exploits against the Seawolves, the Arrows took on a much stronger side in the shape of Rugby United New York and put them to the sword. Montero the Magician ran in three tries of his own and Toronto clearly put the lessons learnt the previous week into good practice and proved that they can hold up against sterner opposition. We had a horrible sense of deja vu that perhaps the previous weekend’s heroics were a flash in the pan, as New York stormed out of the blocks in the opening ten minutes and appeared to catch the Arrows off guard. Fortunately it was only an illusion, and Toronto got their first try after 14 minutes and thereafter it was all about the Exiles from North of the Border. Once more Toronto’s South American back line were on song and produced some outrageous counter attacks from deep, producing a glorious spectacle of running rugby. As exciting as the South American contingent are, the value of centre and Canadian international Ben LeSage cannot be underestimated. His ability to provide the Arrows with quick thinking explosive carries up the middle is key to supplying their back line with such good ball to work with.

Game 7 – NOLA Gold 22 – Toronto Arrows 14

This and the next round were two painful lost opportunities for Toronto. They should have won this game, and for all intents and purposes were the dominant side in the first half. Whether their two thumping victories of the previous two rounds took it out of them or not we’ll never know, but they appeared to run out of gas in the second half. They played a brilliant first half which looked set to continue the momentum built up against Seattle and New York. However, in the second half they imploded badly. NOLA had been plagued by problems of their own in the first half, most notably figuring out how to actually hold onto a rugby ball. However, whatever half time talk took place in the NOLA changing rooms it clearly worked. NOLA got their house in order and whatever handling ailments they seemed to have in the first half were transferred to Toronto. Toronto simply fizzled in the second half and exited stage left for a good twenty minutes. They rallied once more towards the end but at that stage it was too little too late. They were forced to play catch up rugby with 5 minutes left on the clock. They tried to force the play far too much and the errors came thick and fast and with it a lack of discipline as frustration got the better of the players. Even with NOLA being a player short due to a yellow card, Toronto simply couldn’t gain the upper hand.

Game 8 – Toronto Arrows 29 – Rugby Atlanta 33

The Arrows South American contingent may be making the points but Canadian International centre Ben LeSage is often the architect

This nail biting heartbreaker for the Arrows on their adopted home ground for this season was a bitter pill to swallow. It got off to a shaky start for the Arrows, with the Georgians looking to be the dominant side, but after five minutes Toronto came charging back with another of their talismans, the indomitable second rower Mike Shepherd crashing over for Toronto’s first points. For the next twenty minutes the Arrows dominated proceedings in an intensely physical and fast paced encounter. The execution wasn’t quite as precise as that shown against New York and Seattle and once again Toronto went missing for a crucial 20 minute period during the final 10 of the first and opening 10 of the second halves. Toronto tied the match up at 26-26 on the 64th minute and thereafter the game seesawed back and forth between the two sides. A penalty kick from Arrows fly half Tayler Adams who had been dependable with the boot all match pulled Toronto ahead to 29-26 with five minutes to go. It was Toronto’s match to lose and sadly that is exactly what happened despite Toronto’s very best efforts. Toronto had to withstand an all out assault on their try line as the clock wound into the red, and the Georgians were just able to shove it that final inch across the whitewash against a valiant but exhausted Toronto defence. If Toronto can just avoid those costly lapses in concentration then games such as this are theirs for their taking. Once again there were plenty of positives from Toronto in this match and yet again centre Ben LeSage showed just how valuable he is when it comes to finding space for the Arrows backline to operate in.

Game 9 – Houston Sabercats 10 – Toronto Arrows 19

Another of Toronto’s South American contingent who just doesn’t quit – No 8 Manuel Diana

It wasn’t pretty at times, and definitely a game that Toronto should have won more comfortably but in the end a win is a win and one Toronto simply had to get. Houston have not been one of the top sides but have some silky try scorers in their midst. Toronto were able to effectively negate that threat but in the process simply didn’t look as dangerous in attack as they should have done. They are likely to rue the lack of a points haul should they get themselves into contention for a possible playoff spot at the business end of the season, but will have to settle for the win for now. Once again a lack of concentration in the final ten minutes could have cost them the game, but they held their nerve and more importantly their discipline and got the job done. Man of the Match, Uruguayan number 8 Manuel Diana had a massive game and has been one of the Arrows most consistent performers in a season that has had more than its fair share of ups and downs so far.

Verdict

With seven games left before the playoffs Toronto have it all to do and everything to play for. If you recall their first full season in the MLR in 2019, the first half was a rocky road, but they stormed home at the end to secure a place in the semi-finals. However, they did benefit from having the last half of their season entirely at home in Toronto in front of their exuberant fans, a luxury they simply won’t have this year. Focus will be the order of business for the remainder of the season and Toronto must set their sights on at least five big wins as a bare minimum. It won’t be easy but you sense there is once more a belief growing in this team and their sense of togetherness is plain for all to see. The majority of their remaining games are against teams they can get the measure of so it’s definitely a possibility.

Their strengths are obvious. First up is a tightly knit and cohesive forward pack, that can compete and often dominate the set pieces with individuals like Lucas Rumball and Manuel Diana being exceptionally effective in the loose. Their lineout work has consistently improved as the season has progressed. They have an increasingly impressive and competent half back pairing, with fly half Tayler Adams able to keep the scoreboard ticking over and we really like the look of Ross Braude at scrum half. As for their backs, their back line could hold their own in the top leagues in Europe and as mentioned above Ben LeSage has really come into his own in the centre channels and is definitely one of the Arrows key playmakers. It’s a good Arrows squad which is surely only going to get better, and while this may not be the season it all comes together for the Arrows, we have a hunch that next season is going to be one to remember for Toronto and their fans, especially once they are reunited at Lamport Stadium.

Till then enjoy what has been some exceptionally entertaining rugby at times, and here’s to what should be an exciting finale to this year’s MLR season. Like we say be lenient in your criticisms of the Arrows given their circumstances, and instead embrace the fact that in a time when we’ve had little to cheer about, they have kept a Canadian presence in our beloved sport very much alive. For that we salute every one of them and wish them the very best of luck for the remainder of the season!

Published by Neil Olsen

Passionate about rugby and trying to promote the global game in Canada and North America.

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