Source: Craig Boudreaux/Canadian Press
It was a historic occasion for the Toronto Arrows as they took on the NOLA Gold in their Major League Rugby debut. The game was more important than just the first game of a franchise. This was the first time in history that a professional rugby union game involved a Canadian team. Regardless of what the result would end up being, it was a monumental day for Canadian rugby.
The game was a tale of two halves for Toronto. The team seemed full of nerves at the start of the game. NOLA’s Scott Gale picking up the 2019 MLR season’s first try just under 2 minutes into the game clearly did not help those nerves. The Arrows never really seemed to settle down in the opening half. They were struggling to make passes and to hold onto the ball as they failed to gain possession for any meaningful length of time. John Moonlight did manage to score the first try in Arrows history. It wasn’t the prettiest try (and even involved Andrew Ferguson passing the ball off Lucas Rumball’s face) but it tied the game 7-7 and seemed to give the Arrows life. However, Tim Maupin struck back quick for NOLA. A yellow card to Jack Evans saw the Arrows down a man and Eric Howard and Con Foley added tries to extend the NOLA lead to 24-7 at the half.
The second half was infinitely better from the Arrows. Toronto was able to change the momentum of the game with an early 2nd half try from Dan Moor in the 46th minute. Moor would add another try in the 57th minute as he spearheaded Toronto’s comeback. Toronto began to take over the game in the 2nd half. They were able to employ that lunchbox and hard hat style the coaching staff was talking about during training camp as they were able to string together multiple phases and breakdown the NOLA defense. Toronto would add a penalty try and a try from Avery Oitomen. Unfortunately, NOLA still managed to add tries from JP Eloff and Tristan Blewett. Ultimately, the Arrows could not recover from their poor 1st half and NOLA held on to win 36-31. For an optimistic person the Arrows may have lost in the best way you can possibly lose. The Arrows did not seem disheartened by the disappointing opening half and continued to play hard. Although their comeback ultimately fell short, they managed to score 4 tries and keep the final score within 7 point. This allows them to pick up 2 bonus points in the standings, the most points you can get in a loss.
There are a handful of major talking points to take from this game. First of all, Toronto looked incredibly nervous in that first half. Passes were being dropped, assignments were being missed, and most importantly they were scored on immediately. In the early stages, it was clearly nerves. Later in the half it began to look a little like rust. The Arrows entered the 2019 MLR without playing any preseason games against MLR opponents. A game was scheduled with Rugby United New York, but their bus crashed on the way to the game so it was cancelled. The preseason format was problematic across MLR (Americas Rugby News’ Bryan Ray had a great take on it) with many MLR teams simply pummelling local club level teams. As the league expands again next year to DC and New England it would be great to see some sort preseason schedule worked out between the eastern MLR clubs. Being able to test yourself against a true MLR opponent would be beneficial for everyone. NOLA was in a similar boat as Toronto and also had no preseason games against MLR opponents. In January, NOLA defeated the Midwest Selects and the Dallas Reds by a combined score of 146-0. Despite the victory, NOLA also had many sloppy moments in the game and could have benefited from a true MLR test in the preseason. Both sides really struggled in the scrums. Scums frequently had to be reset and the majority of them ended in penalties. The commentators even let out a little Bronx cheer when there was finally a completed scrum in the game. A proper preseason schedule next season could both alleviate the nerves and produce higher quality performances in round 1.
If there is was one noticeable area that the Arrows need to improve on it was their defense out wide. NOLA frequently attacked Toronto’s wings and they got plenty of points for it. It started off early as Tim Maupin, JP Eloff, Cam Dolan and Scott Gale worked some nice support play down Kainoa Lloyd’s wing for the first try under 2 minutes into the game. Lloyd had to defend a 2on1 and when NOLA got by him, Jack Evans could not make the try saving tackle. Dolan and Maupin again made their way around Lloyd and Evans for the second try. Eric Howard’s try came as the direct result of another NOLA attack out wide. Evans tripped Maupin resulting in a yellow card. Howard was able to drive over within 30 seconds of being up a man. Eloff scored another try out wide as he beat Jamie Leveridge in a 1-on-1 situation. Tristan Blewett technically scored along the wing as well, but he was just hunting down a charged down kick (just an unlucky break). Ultimately, NOLA scored 4 of their 6 tries as a direct result of attacking the wings. Toronto now has a bye week, so there is plenty of time to make corrections before they play Austin on February 8th.
There was certainly plenty of positives for the Arrows too. Despite being down 24-7 at the half, the Arrows showed a lot of heart in their comeback attempt. The Arrows managed to score 4 tries in the second half. Dan Moor flipped the tables on NOLA and began attacking their wingers for 2 tries. Toronto again attacked out wide as Sam Malcolm sent a wide pass out to Moonlight that Maupin was forced to intentionally knock down resulting in a penalty try. Avery Oitoman destroyed Gale and Blewett in a 1-on-2 situation as he powered his way across the try line.
The Arrows depth really shined through as well in the second half. Many of the substitutes led the charge in the second half. Oitomen obviously picked up the crucial try that brought the Arrows to within 5, earning another bonus point. Kolby Francis replaced Lucas Rumball at No 8 at halftime and was incredibly effective at the breakdowns. Shawn Windsor replaced Evans at halftime as well, and he made a big impact early by setting up Moor’s 46th minute try. Riley DiNardo was excellent when he came on at scrumhalf. His ball distribution and decision making were terrific and he was instrumental in the Arrows attack. Morgan Mitchell lived up to the billing. He had a number of massive carries including a line break that eventually led to Moor’s second try. After the Arrows struggled in the 1st half, the substitutes really seemed to breath new life into the team.
Ultimately, in the Arrows inaugural game I felt that their two best players were Dan Moor and Mike Sheppard. Moor got his name on the scoresheet twice but he did much than just score tries. Prior to the end of the first half as the Arrows were struggling, Moor was the first player that truly showed signs of life. Moor led the charge on a few line breaks and had a number of big runs that seemed to not only break down the NOLA defense, but to energize his teammates as well. In the second half as NOLA kept trying to attack the wings Moor began to shut that attack down and forced NOLA to look at different approaches. Mike Sheppard was a beast. He made a number of bone jarring hits that seemed to fire up his team as well. Sheppard had a handful of line breaks as well. He was also great in support, especially on Mitchell’s big linebreak. Sheppard was the Arrows captain last year and it was easy to see why with his performance against NOLA.
Although the loss may be disappointing, there are plenty of positives to take from the game. The 2 bonus points are a tangible positive and with the way they played in the 2nd half the Arrows should feel pretty good about the season. The Arrows no get their first bye week, giving them two weeks to regroup ahead of their Round 3 match with Austin Elite Rugby on February 8th.