Canadian rugby takes a big step Saturday as the Toronto Arrows kick off life in North America's pro circuit.
The Arrows, a beefed-up version of the Canadian Rugby Championship reigning title-holder Ontario Blues, make their Major League Rugby debut in New Orleans against NOLA Gold.
Also Saturday, the Houston Sabercats are at Austin Elite Rugby. On Sunday, expansion Rugby United New York plays at the San Diego Legion and the Glendale Raptors visit the Seattle Seawolves in a repeat of last year's championship game won by the latter squad.
The Utah Warriors have a first-week bye.
Canadian coaches have long lamented the lack of competitive domestic club action for their players. The nine-team MLR, now with a Canadian flavour in its second year, will hopefully help better prepare players for the daunting jump to international test play against countries with well-established pro leagues of their own.
"I've been around elite rugby for a long time now, it's probably 15-17 years now. And we've all talked about this day, as coaches and people involved in the development of the game," said Chris Silverthorn, the Arrows' director of rugby.
"We're all very excited to see what this brings and (what) the future will have," he added.
Because of the Canadian winter, the Arrows will play their first eight games on the road before an eight-game homestand between April 7 and June 2. The first four home games will be held at York University with the next four at Lamport Stadium.
The MLR final is scheduled for June 16.
The young Arrows' starting 15, whose average age is 25, features 10 Canadian internationals with 126 caps between them. Seven players are graduates of the Canadian under-20 program.
New Zealand's Sam Malcolm will start at fly half. The 24-year-old played for Manawatu in New Zealand's second tier beneath Super Rugby.
Spencer Jones, a New Zealand native who qualifies to play for Canada via his bloodlines, will start at outside centre while Kiwi tighthead prop Morgan Malcolm "is a bit of beast worth the price of admission himself" according to Silverthorn.
The Arrows have also recruited Uruguayan wingers Leandro Leivas and Gaston Mieres and England under-20 forward Jack Nay, who will arrive soon on loan from defending English club champion Saracens.
"We're pretty ready and we're pretty confident," said Silverthorn.
Lucas Rumball, a 23-year-old backrower from Toronto who captained Canada against Russia last summer, will serve as the Arrows' skipper.
The Arrows are holding some players back in deference to the Canadian national team, which plays Uruguay on Feb. 2 in the opening round of the six-country Americas Rugby Championship.
Canada coach Kingsley Jones has includes seven members of the Arrows in his 28-man roster for the opening ARC games at Uruguay and Brazil. Toronto elected not to include three of those — Jamie Mackenzie, Guiseppe du Toit and Theo Sauder — in Saturday's matchday 23.
New Orleans, whose roster includes Canadian internationals Hubert Buydens, Eric Howard and Kyle Baillie, finished sixth in the then-seven-team league in 2018 with a 3-5-0 record.
For most players, the fledgling league is semi-professional.
Toronto is carrying a roster of 34 players, about two-thirds under contract and the rest associate players paid on a short-term basis.
With a league-mandated salary cap of US$450,000, if Toronto carried 22 players under contract, their average salary would be a modest US$20,450 (C$26,125).
Former Canada sevens captain John Moonlight, slated to start in the back row Saturday, will juggle the Arrows with his full-time gig as a firefighter in his native Pickering, Ont.
Similar to Major League Soccer, MLR is a single-entity structure with owners buying an equal stake in the league.
The Arrows ownership includes co-founder Bill Webb, a partner and chief investment officer at Waypoint Investment Partners, along with former NHL executive Brian Burke, Boat Rocker Sports (a division of Boat Rocker Media), Duncan McNaughton (an assistant coach with the Canadian women’s team and the Queen’s University men's team), Kevin Reed of AR3 Capital and John Ferraro of Mass Marketing Inc.
Like Webb, Burke is a member of Rugby Canada’s board of directors. Now a TV hockey pundit, Burke is a longtime fan of the sport that he started playing as a Harvard law student.
The Arrows have been playing exhibition games since the fall of 2017.
Canada already has a pro rugby league team in the Toronto Wolfpack. Debuting in 2017, the Wolfpack currently play the 13-man version of the game in England’s second-tier Betfred Championship.
The Wolfpack open their third season Feb. 3 at England's York City Knights.
Rugby league is the 13-player version of the sport. Rugby union, the more popular code around the globe, features 15- and seven-player versions of the game.
MLR boosted its star power this season with news that former England fullback Ben Foden has signed with Rugby United New York. The 33-year-old, who won 33 caps for England and played at the 2011 World Cup, will double as a player and backs coach.
Defending champion Seattle features Canadians Phil Mack, Djustice Sears-Duru, Cam Polson, Brock Staller, Nakai Penny and George Barton.
Austin's Canadian content includes brothers Josh and Travis Larsen, Doug Fraser, Moe Abdelmonem, Mike Nieuwenhuysen and Aidan McMullan.
Canadian Noah Barker will join Glendale when his ARC commitments are done.
Saturday's game in New Orleans will be broadcast live starting at 3 p.m. ET on Game TV and streamed on the Arrows’ Facebook page.
Rob Brouwer, Andrew Quattrin, Cole Keith, Mike Sheppard, Paul Ciulini, Peter Milazzo, John Moonlight, Lucas Rumball (capt.), Andrew Ferguson, Sam Malcolm, Kainoa Lloyd, Jamie Leveridge, Spencer Jones, Dan Moor, Jack Evans.
Steven Ng, Tom Dolezel, Morgan Mitchell, Kolby Francis, Marcello Wainwright, Riley Di Nardo, John Sheridan, Shawn Windsor.
Director of Rugby: Chris Silverthorn
Coaches: Aaron Carpenter, Cory Hector, Peter Smith
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press