You only get one chance to make a good first impression. The Toronto Arrows will make their MLR debut when they take on the NOLA Gold in Gold Stadium at 3pm on today. Both teams will be wanting to make a big statement of their intentions for the 2019 season. Toronto are one of the expansion teams. The roster is largely made up from the Ontario Blues teams that have dominated the Canadian Rugby Championship. The players, as well as head coach Chris Silverthorn and GM Mark Winokur, will be looking to prove that their previous success will translate into Major League Rugby. NOLA Gold ran into an abundance of injury problems last year. A lack of depth was the teams undoing, and their 3-5-0 record wasn’t good enough for the playoffs. NOLA made a number of major signings and their depth problem has been firmly addressed. Early predictions seem split on NOLA. Some people have them in the playoffs, others have them no where close (personally I ranked them 3rd in my full season prediction). Both sides have something to prove on Saturday, so how will it all play out?
Arrows Starting XV:
Here is how the Toronto Arrows will line up for their first MLR game in history:
Toronto will be without fullback Theo Sauder, centre Guiseppe du Toit, and scrumhalf Jamie Mackenzie as the trio head to the Americas Rugby Championship early. Jack Evans, Jamie Leverage, and Andrew Ferguson will get the start in their place. John Moonlight will make his MLR debut as well as he dons the number 7 jersey. Lucas Rumball has been named as the first captain for the Toronto Arrows. He will start at No. 8 with Moonlight and Peter Milazzo at flanker. Rumball is typically a flanker, but it looks like he will wear the No. 8 jersey until Jack Nay arrives from Saracens. Toronto only has two players that are not Canadian eligible in their 23 man squad. Starting flyhalf Sam Malcolm and prop Morgan Mitchell will be coming off the bench. Both Malcolm and Mitchell are from New Zealand and played in the Mitre 10 Cup last year.
NOLA Gold’s starting XV are:
Source: NOLA Gold (Facebook)
NOLA comes out of the gate with a near full strength squad. Locks Nikola Bursic (Chile) and Ignacio Dotti (Uruguay) are both with their national team as they prepare for ARC. The Gold’s depth is already shining through. Even with Bursic and Dotti’s absence, NOLA still has Samoan international Kane Thompson starting at lock. Billy Stewart will be looking to stake his claim to more playing time by putting in strong performances during the ARC. He gets his first chance to start. The most notable thing in NOLA’s lineup is Zach Stryfeller at flanker. Styfeller is typically a centre. He played centre in NOLA’s preseason games as well. It seems coach Nate Osborne is looking to experiment a little bit. Flanker Vince Jobo will be coming off the bench instead. NOLA’s actual centres for this game will be Con Foley, Tristan Blewett and Taylor Howden.
3 Things to Watch For:
1. Overseas signings
Although the vast majority of Toronto’s squad is Canadian, two of the players I’m most interested in watching this week are the New Zealanders; Sam Malcolm and Morgan Mitchell. Both players spent time in the Mitre 10 Cup last year. Despite (technically) being the 2nd division in New Zealand it is still one of the best leagues in the world (a lot of All Blacks play in the Mitre 10 Cup). For this reason alone, I’m very excited to watch Malcolm and Mitchell play. It will be great to see them on the pitch as Arrows for the first time and to see how they compare to other MLR talent.
NOLA has some intriguing signings as well. A veteran of 33 caps, including 3 Rugby World Cups, Samoan Kane Thompson will be making his MLR debut. At 37 years old, Thompson is nearing the end of his career. He has played in many of the world’s top leagues including the English Premiership, Top 14 (France), Mitre 10 Cup, and Super Rugby. In 2012 Thompson scored a try as he helped the Chiefs defeat the Sharks 37-6 to claim the Super Rugby Championship. Many MLR fans are excited to see someone with Thompson’s resume suit up in MLR and Saturday will be their first chance to do so. South African Tristan Blewett, who is a product of the Sharks development system, will also be making his MLR debut starting at centre.
2. Wealth of international talent
Kane Thompson is just scratching the surface of the international talent in this match. In addition to Thompson, NOLA has 8 other internationally capped players in the lineup. Centre Con Foley has played 43 games for Australia’s sevens team and prop Hubert Buydens (Canada), hooker Eric Howard (Canada), prop Ben Tarr (USA), flanker Kyle Bailie (Canada), No 8 Cam Dolan (USA), winger Tim Maupin (USA), and fullback JP Eloff (USA) have all earned caps in the 15 man game.
Toronto will counter with 10 international caps of their own. Prop Rob Brouwer, prop Cole Keith, prop Tom Dolezel, lock Mike Sheppard, lock Paul Ciulini, flanker John Moonlight, No 8 Lucas Rumball, scrumhalf Andrew Ferguson, winger Kainoa Lloyd, and winger Dan Moor have all earned caps for Canada. With Buydens, Howard, and Bailie on the other side, NOLA vs Toronto will certainly be a game that Canadian rugby fans will want to keep an eye on. Ultimately their are 13 capped Canadians in this game and 19 total capped players. It’s even crazier when you remember both teams are missing players with international caps. The 2019 MLR season will start off with a bang as there is no shortage of quality in the lineups.
3. Back Row Battle
The part of this game that I’m most excited for is the back row battle. Both teams possess absolutely elite back rows. I’m convinced that at the end of the year we will be talking about Toronto or NOLA having the best back row in MLR (sorry Glendale, but it’s true). This will be the first time we see them go head to head. Toronto is starting Peter Milazzo at 6, John Moonlight at 7, and Lucas Rumball at 8. NOLA will counter with Kyle Bailie at 6, Zach Stryfeller at 7, and Cam Dolan at 8. Starting with the 6, Milazzo must be jumping at the chance to go up against Kyle Bailie. Milazzo is the youngest captain in Ontario Blues history and has represented Canada at the age grade levels. He has played for Canada ‘A’ but has not been able to make the jump to the national team. If he wants to make that jump, he can start by showing what he can do against Bailie, one of the best flankers in the country. Moonlight will be up against Stryfeller in an intriguing matchup. Moonlight is an absolute legend in Canadian rugby. Although most of his career has been in sevens. Stryfeller is typically a centre so it will be interesting to see how he handles his new position. Both Moonlight and Stryfeller should bring a lot of speed and attacking mentality to the position. Rumball vs Dolan is an amazing matchup to start the year as well. One of Canada’s best loose forwards vs one of USA’s best loose forwards. Dolan was a First Team All-MLR No 8 last year, so it will be fascinating to see Rumball go head to head with an elite MLR player in his first professional game. Of course all 6 of these players will cross paths with each other throughout the match. Rumball and Bailie dominate the rucks during the Repechage Tournament so I’m really excited to see them meet at a breakdown for the first time on saturday. The outcome will certainly give one Canadian plenty of bragging rights when they meet up at ARC. With these 6 manning the back row, every break down will be a battle. It will be a lot of fn to watch.
NOLA Gold vs Toronto Arrows will kickoff at 3pm. It will be the first game for Canada’s first professional rugby union team. It is a big moment so make sure you tune in. The game is available on Game TV as well as the Arrows Facebook page.