It’s finally here! Opening weekend of the 3rd Major League Rugby season is upon us!
In their inaugural season last year, the Toronto Arrows reached the semi-finals. In that semi-final they fell to the Seattle Seawolves, who would eventually become back-to-back MLR Champions. The season seemed to be considered a success by many fans and media. However, the Arrows themselves were disappointed with the early exit.
This season is all about striving to take that next step and win a Championship. The team has now had a full training camp (unlike last season) with their entire roster involved in camp. As a result, the team feels that they are miles ahead of where they were at this point in 2019. They have set the goal of a Championship in 2020, and they look like they have the team to do it.
The road to the Championship begins this Sunday as the Toronto Arrows take on newly re-named Austin Gilgronis. The Gilgronis took home the wooden spoon in 2019 as they became the first winless club in MLR’s young history. However, the team has undergone plenty of changes this offseason including new owners, new branding (twice), a new home, new coaches, and a host of new players.
While the Arrows have Championship aspirations, the Gilgronis are just looking to end the streak and pick up a notch in the win column.
The Starting XV
The Arrows enter 2020 in good health. Centre Spencer Jones and flanker Marcello Wainwright are the only two players nursing injuries. As a result, the Arrows can come full force out of the gate. The lineup is similar to projections. The biggest surprise would be the inclusion of tighthead prop Tyler Rowland on the bench, as he was believed to have been sent back to Pacific Pride. Additionally, All-MLR loosehead prop Rob Brouwer is absent from the matchday squad.
A handful of players will make their Arrows and MLR debuts vs the Gilgronis. Front rowers Richie Asiata and Tyler Rowland, Tayler Adams will be at flyhalf, Ben LeSage at centre, and the back row will feature a South American duo of Manuel Diana and Tomas de la Vega. “I’m really excited. I’m really happy to start in the game on Sunday”, said del le Vega who is enthusiastic about making his MLR debut.
Del la Vega, who has earned 14 caps with Los Pumas, will be tasked with calling the plays and will be the primary target in the lineout. Sam Malcolm was the Arrows best player through 2019. He will be shifting from flyhalf to fullback in 2020. The shift makes room for the dynamic Tayler Adams to takeover at flyhalf.
Adams is a former junior All Black and describes his style of play as “a bit of a risk taker. I like to play with a bit of X-factor, a little flashy, a little bit of flair”. He says that the game is more fun for him when he plays on the edge. Adams has shown sparks of the X-factor in the preseason (most notably on his glorious kick that set up Jones’ try against Utah). Arrows fans should be in for a treat.
In the backs, the two centre positions were highly contested during camp. Ultimately, Guiseppe du Toit and Ben LeSage earn the 12 and 13 jerseys for the season opener. Mitch Richardson will be poised to make a massive impact off the bench as well. Jamie Mackenzie will start at scrumhalf over Andrew Ferguson (despite it being the other way around most of last season). Captain Dan Moor takes his rightful place in on the wing alongside Gaston Mieres and Malcolm in the outside backs.
The Arrows have opted to start Richie Asiata and Cole Keith in the front row. Asiata is able to play either tighthead or loosehead. The previous belief was that Asiata would play tighthead with Pat Lynott and Rob Brouwer on the loosehead side. Asiata gets the start and Lynott will be in the reserves.
Asiata has a very dynamic running style for a prop. When he gets the ball, watch out for that side step. The rest of the pack lines up as expected with Mike Sheppard and Paul Ciulini remaining staples of the engine room. Vice-Captain Lucas Rumball will man the back row with de la Vega and Diana.
Austin has made a number of off-season acquisitions in an effort to ensure that there will be no repeat of last season. Unfortunately, Wallaby legend Adam Ashley-Cooper and Tonga flyhalf Kurt Morath have not arrived yet.
Additionally, former All Black Frank Halai is also absent from the roster. Austin will be led into the Gilgronis era by captain Zinzan Elan-Puttick. Elan-Puttick played as a fullback last season, but will start 2020 at flyhalf. This allows Los Teros Rodrigo Silva to slide into the starting 15 jersey. Elan-Puttick is certainly more comfortable as a fullback.
Unfortunately for Mick Byrne’s side, they do not have a top end flyhalf until Morath arrives (and he was a late signing). A natural flyhalf in Alex Rees will be on the bench. Elan-Puttick will form the halfback combination with Chilean international Marcelo Torrealba. Into the centres, Sione Fangaiuiha and Peni Tagive will look to make an impact in a matchup with du Toit and LeSage. The pack is highlighted by South African lock Rikus Zwart at lock and a solid front row of LaRome White, Chris Schade, and Juan Echeverria of Los Teros.
From the perspective of the Great White North, Moe Abdelmonem will be coming off the bench in the 20 jersey. Abdelmonem will give the Gilgronis a big boost of energy in the 2nd half. Abdelmonem has a tendency to get over the ball quickly and generate penalties and turnovers. He picked up 2 tries in 10 games for Austin last year.
3 Things to Watch
The Arrows had a great scrum in 2019. However, in 2020 it looks to be outright dominant. Their first test will come against Austin. Austin will enter the match with a front row of White, Schade, and Echeveria. This will be a good test for Asiata, Quattrin, and Keith to start the year. This will be a big matchup as the Gilgronis’ front row looks to be one of their strengths.
Win the scrum matchup, and the Arrows will be on their way to leaving Texas with a victory. The Arrows scrum has looked great regardless of who is in the pack throughout preseason, giving Winokur plenty of options. Their technique looks to be in fine form heading into this match with Austin.
Ultimately despite being one of the smaller teams in MLR, their fundamentals and technique is what will allow this scrum to dominate the physical side of the game. Look for the Arrows to utilise the scrum to set up a strong set piece platform. Additionally, 20-year old Tyler Rowland will enter the game as Keith’s replacement. I’m looking forward to see how he stacks up with MLR competition.
The Arrows have been working on a new attacking structure heading into 2020. Austin will be the first club to have the new look attack unleashed upon them. Lucas Rumball said the squad is looking to have “a more expansive attack, with more options available”. The Arrows are looking to play an exciting brand of rugby throughout the 2020 season.
As Rumball eluded to, the attack will also feature plenty of variety. Scrumhalf Andrew Ferguson added that he is excited about the attack because everyone has a bigger part of the decision-making process. He explained “There is a lot of options for everybody. We don’t even know what is going to happen when the first ball is passed out”. The Arrows new attacking structure will be introduced to the MLR this Sunday.
Arrows’ Depth and Fitness
The Arrows will be heavily favoured to win this match. A big reason for that is their depth and fitness levels. It will be extremely difficult for Austin or any club to compete with the Arrows late in games. The Arrows fitness levels are outstanding and should be able to outwork and outhustle teams late in the game.
Additionally, they have an incredibly strong bench which includes 2 capped players in Ferguson and Leandro Leivas, a solid front row of Pat Lynott, Steven Ng, and Tyler Rowland, with Kolby Francis and Peter Milazzo as the other forward options. Mitch Richardson will round out the bench. Richardson has looked outstanding in camp and I believe is poised to have a breakout year in MLR.
When the gas tanks start getting low, the Arrows will be able to send out some genuinely great talent that would be locked in starters on many other MLR teams. I expect Austin to struggle to compete with the Arrows after the 50-minute mark.
The Toronto Arrows head to Texas to help usher in the Austin Gilgronis era. For everything you need to know in the build up to the match and all your Toronto Arrows news, follow @BressetteTheJet and @LaymansSports on your favourite social media network!