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Arrows captain Mike Sheppard no stranger to showing up to work a little battered

TORONTO — No one was taken aback when Mike Sheppard showed up at his day job with a shiner this week. No stranger to taking damage on the rugby field, the Toronto Arrows captain's black eye was courtesy of friendly fire.

TORONTO — No one was taken aback when Mike Sheppard showed up at his day job with a shiner this week.

No stranger to taking damage on the rugby field, the Toronto Arrows captain's black eye was courtesy of friendly fire. The six-foot-four 240-pound Sheppard banged heads with Arrows centre Ueta Tufuga, a chunky six-foot 235-pound New Zealander, making a tackle in Saturday's 31-16 loss to the defending MLR champion Los Angeles Giltinis in Langford, B.C.

"Unfortunately, the back of his head met the front of my face," Sheppard recalled cheerfully. "He got me pretty good on that one. So that blew up pretty much instantly. But it's all good now, thankfully. I was able to see and nothing got broken."

Still it made for a painful 48 hours. The 33-year-old from Brampton, Ont., who now calls Stoney Creek home, could not wear his contact lenses and his glasses were pushing against the swelling.

The veteran second-row forward works for Brampton-based ColdHaus Direct, a craft beer distributor, when he's not playing rugby. Sheppard says his employer, whom he praises for its flexibility towards him, is used to seeing him wearing some rugby souvenirs.

Toronto plays at NOLA Gold on Saturday in a battle of winless teams at the Gold Mine in Metairie, La.

The Arrows lost 21-8 at the Seattle Seawolves in their Feb. 6 season opener. NOLA, whose roster includes Canadian hooker Eric Howard, is coming off home losses to Rugby ATL (14-9) and the New England Free Jacks (24-13).

Toronto has been hit hard with injuries early in the season.

The Arrows were missing 10 players for the Giltinis game: backs Sam Malcolm, Andrew Ferguson, Guiseppe du Toit, Cole Brown, John Sheridan, Brandan Ferguson, Dennon Robinson-Bartlett, Kobe Faust and Connor McCann, and forward Tomy de la Vega.

Canadian international back Brock Webster was signed this week in a bid to help fill that injury void.

The Arrows hope Malcolm, a key player at fly half, and de la Vega and McCann will be fit to play Saturday.

Seven players made their Arrows debut against Seattle with McCann, Tufuga, Kyle Baillie and Isaac Salmon starting and Lolani Faleiva, James O’Neill and Mitch Voralek coming off the bench.

Three more debuted Week 2, with Matthew Hood starting and Chris Bell and Taitusi Vikilani coming off the bench.

While there has been considerable turnover following a 5-11-0 campaign away from home last season, Sheppard likes what he sees from this season's roster.

"Individual talent is not an issue for us. it's just coming together and finding out team shape," he said.

Sheppard is in his fourth season with the Arrows and, after a 2021 season spent in suburban Atlanta, is happy to be able to be close to home these days.

Spending months in a hotel with teammates gets old.

"It's just like if you're growing up with brothers. Eventually people get on each other's nerves — just the little things," he said. "No one's doing anything intentionally to piss people off but when you're all sharing one kitchen, you're all sharing the same living space, it's just a lot. You really want to be able to disengage from your job, not just rugby but any day job. You don't want to be surrounded 24/7, 365 (days). At times it was tough to get that disengagement.

"We still had a lot of fun down there. We made the best of it."

Sheppard was voted captain by his peers, with flanker Lucas Rumball and Malcolm named vice-captains.

Sheppard came into the season leading the franchise in several statistical categories, including tackles (326), dominant tackles (22), and carries (258). His nine tries — the latest coming from a blocked kick against the Giltinis — are the most amongst forwards in club history.

He was named to the All-MLR 1st XV in 2019.

Sheppard has earned 11 caps for Canada since making his debut against Kenya in November 2018, starting five matches and scoring one try. He was part of Canada's team at the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

A graduate of the Ontario Blues and McMaster University, he also played for the Brampton Beavers and Stoney Creek Camels.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 18, 2022

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press