On Friday afternoon Major League Rugby announced the arrival of two additional expansion teams. An unnamed Washington D.C. franchise will join the league in 2020 and the Toronto Arrows RFC will begin play for the upcoming 2019 season. The move helps to solidify MLR’s east coast presence and turn them into a nationwide league. In their first season, the NOLA Gold (New Orleans) were the furthest eastern team in a league that included Austin, Houston, Utah, Glendale (CO), San Diego, and Seattle. The 2019 season will not only be adding the Toronto Arrows but also the previously announced Rugby United New York. Toronto and New York will then be joined by Washington and the New England Free Jacks for the 2020 season to round out the east coast presence.
The announcement was met with a lot of excitement from North American rugby fans. A common criticism of Canadian and American rugby has always been that many of the players have no professional options close to home. There has been a handful of previous attempts at organizing professional rugby union in North America but nothing has been viable. The last attempt was PRO Rugby, which folded after just 1 season. As a result, it’s wonderful to see that MLR is not only going to play season 2 but is expanding for it and the following season as well.
Toronto Arrows RFC
The Toronto Arrows will be entering the MLR for the 2019 season, but they are not exactly a new team. Previously known as the Ontario Arrows, the club was founded in 2017 as “Canada’s first privately funded high-performance rugby team”. The ownership group is led by Bill Webb and features a number of other investors including former Toronto Maple Leafs General Manager Brian Burke. Although the club has not been directly affiliated with a league up until this afternoon they have played numerous exhibition matches. Many of those matches have been against MLR teams. Most notably, the Arrows defeated 2018 MLR finalists Glendale Raptors 40-18 at York Lions Stadium in September. It’s a great sign for fans as the Arrows clearly illustrated that they are going to be able to compete next season.
The biggest benefit of the Arrows is that they will be able to provide Canadians with a place to train and play rugby union professionally in Canada for the first time. The inaugural MLR featured plenty of Canadians spread out across the league. MLR Champions Seattle Seawolves featured a league-high 8 Canadian players. However, the Toronto Arrows roster is nearly all Canadian. Six Arrows players (Djustice Sears-Duru, Paul Ciulini, Mike Shepard, Lucas Rumball, Patrick Parfray, and Kainoa Lloyd) have been named to Canada’s roster for the Rugby World Cup Repechage Tournament that begins next week. The coaching staff featuring Chris Silverthorn and Aaron Carpenter and GM Mark Winokur are all Canadian. As I said, one big criticism of Rugby Canada is that the elite players in this country have nowhere to play within Canada and the Toronto Arrows have immediately addressed that. They will be able to not only develop players better, but the Arrows will also develop coaches, managers, trainers, and other team staff. Additionally, Canadian referees will be given more chances to officiate matches with elite talent. Rugby Canada as a whole will be better because of the Arrows.
Off the field, the Toronto Arrows find themselves entering one of the most unique sports markets in the world. Toronto has absolutely everything, including another rugby team. The Toronto Wolfpack compete in the Championship of the Rugby Football League based in England and have been able to build quite the fan base within the city. Wolfpack games routinely have 7-8000 people attending their home games at Lamport Stadium. Overseas, the divide between rugby’s two codes (league and union) is quite clear. Most people like one or the other. That should not be the case in Toronto. Rugby as a whole is not popular enough to divide the fan base into league vs union. Both the Wolfpack and the Arrows should be marketing toward rugby fans in general and encourage people to attend both teams’ home games. So far they have been great with this as the Wolfpack and Arrows social media frequently post encouraging messages to each other on social media before games and after big announcements. It would be great to see this continued next season.
Finally, the announcement that the Arrows were joining MLR came with a new team name and logo. As mentioned the team changed their name from Ontario Arrows to the Toronto Arrows. I like this change a lot just because it simplifies the name a lot more. Ontario is a huge place and calling a team “Ontario” always felt like the Northampton Saints being known as the England Saints. I like it narrowed down a bit. The club also announced that they have changed the logo from this:
I’m a fan of this change for two reasons. First, the logo looks a lot more like a traditional rugby logo. Second, it is blue and white. To me, blue and white have always been Toronto’s colours. The city flag is blue and white, the Maple Leafs, Blue Jays, Argonauts, Marlies, and Varsity Blues are all blue and white. The Raptors blue and white Toronto Huskies throwback jersey also looks way better than their current red, black, and white home and away set. It is great to see the Arrows embracing this colour scheme and I can’t wait to see what the kit and the merchandise look like.
The next major announcement from Major League Rugby will be the schedule for the 2019 schedule and excited Toronto rugby union fans will know the date that the MLR official comes to Canada.