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Arrows coach looks for positives out of frustrating, injury-plagued MLR season

TORONTO — The Toronto Arrows go into Saturday's regular-season finale against the visiting NOLA Gold with one win and a boatload of injuries. It's been that way most of the year for the lone Canadian entry in Major League Rugby.
Toronto Arrows coach Peter Smith is shown in a team handout photo. The Arrows wrap up a disappointing, injury-plagued Major League Rugby season at home Saturday to NOLA Gold. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO-Toronto Arrows **MANDATORY CREDIT**

TORONTO — The Toronto Arrows go into Saturday's regular-season finale against the visiting NOLA Gold with one win and a boatload of injuries.

It's been that way most of the year for the lone Canadian entry in Major League Rugby. Arrows head coach Peter Smith hopes the 2023 campaign serves as short-term pain for long-term gain.

"Whilst the injuries have really affected our performances and our results, it's provided opportunities to some younger (players) who have really stepped up … I think we'll have a more well-rounded squad next year as a result of this and players who are a lot more MLR-ready," he said.

The Arrows (1-12-2, 15 points) have lost three straight — giving up 57, 48 and 50 points along the way — and are winless in 12 games (0-10-2). The team's lone win came on March 11, a 27-26 decision at the expansion Chicago Hounds.

NOLA Gold (6-9-0, 30 points) are out of playoff contention, unable to catch third-place Old Glory D.C. (6-8-1, 38 points) in the Eastern Conference.

There have been good moments for the Arrows.

Smith's side showed resolve in rallying to tie Old Glory 29-29 and Rugby ATL 34-34. And it led the league-leading San Diego Legion 17-7 at the half last weekend before conceding 43 unanswered points to lose 50-17.

"We just haven't been able to string together a full 80 (minutes)," lamented Smith. "There have been games where we have started so poorly and come back and played outstandingly. And there've been times where we've started really strong, we've been in the hunt with 60 (minutes) to go and as soon as it hits 60 minutes, then we just fall away.

"So this one (against San Diego) was a really frustrating one because I thought it was probably one of the best 40 minutes that we've played and probably one of the worst 40 minutes that we've played following that."  

The Arrows are missing 15 players due to injury this week: Nic Benn, Ciaran Breen, Cole Davis, Mitch Eadie, Lolani Faleiva, Nik Hildebrand, Shay Kerry, Avery Oitomen, Noel Reid, Tyler Rowland, Tautalatasi Tasi, Corey Thomas, Micaiah Torrance-Read, Adrian Wadden and Tyler Wong.

The Arrows original squad numbered 33 this season. Smith reckons that had grown to 40-plus due to the injuries.

"It's been devastating to be honest, because we haven't been able to field the same team two weeks in a row," said Smith. "We haven't been able to train with the same team throughout the course of the week."

Smith says there has been no explanation for the rash of injuries. Some have been concussion-related, an issue Smith knows all too well. His playing career was disrupted and ultimately ended by concussions.

Talismanic vice-captain Sam Malcolm and Reid, an Irish international, have both had to deal with concussions. Faleiva, a star prop, was sidelined by a knee injury. 

"We've looked at everything in terms of our training loads. All the GPS data. How the boys have been looked after. What they're doing on and off the field," said Smith, who was elevated from assistant to head coach before the start of the 2022 season.

"We've looked at every injury on a case-by-case basis. And most of them, almost all of them, are just an absolute rotten case of bad luck. Which is unfortunate, because we had a lot of injuries last year and we've done a lot in terms of our planning and preparation going (in)to this year to make sure we don't have a repeat of last year. And we've just had an absolutely horror run."

Smith says the team plans another "deeper dive" after the season to review the injuries.

Players have stepped forward.

Mitch Richardson and Tasi have excelled in the backs while forwards Mason Flesch and Travis Larsen have turned heads. 

GM Tim Matthews deserves credit for his pipeline of replacement talent.

"Every time I walk into Tim's office, he's just watching film making sure that the people that we're bringing in are the right people in terms of both their playing ability and their character," said Smith. "He's done a great job being able to fill the void."

Saturday's matchday 23 still features nine full internationals: eight from Canada and Chile's Ramon Ayarza.

Against San Diego, Toronto fielded an all-Canadian starting 15 for the first time in franchise history. The Arrows had used 14 Canadian starters on four occasions during their inaugural 2019 season.

The all-Canadian 15 lasted less than two minutes, however, as Rowland had to be helped off the field in the second minute, favouring his left leg. He was replaced by New Zealand-born prop Isaac Salmon.

Rowland was actually the second injury of the day. Kerry, an English-born six-foot-six lock who is an important part of the Arrows lineout, "popped his knee" prior to kickoff when he got off the physio's table after getting some strapping.

Wong, a hooker, followed him off in the 31st minute.

Smith is using the final games of the season to further review talent. Young Australian scrum half Will Grant, who been dealing with a back injury for much of the season, will start for the second week in a row with normal starter Ross Braude, a Canadian international who has been one of the team's top performers, coming off the bench.

"Now it's just an opportunity for us to give (Smith) a little bit more game time and expose him to this level a bit more given it's first year in the league," said Smith.

Toronto has conceded a league-worst 575 points this season, for an average of 38.3 points per outing. The Arrows offence, at 282 points, is second-worst behind the Dallas Jackals (250).

The Arrows went 8-8-0 last year, when injuries were also a factor. They were 5-11-0 in 2021 when they moved shop to Atlanta because of pandemic-related travel restrictions, 4-1-0 in the pandemic-shortened 2020 season and 11-5-0 in their inaugural 2019 campaign.

Toronto has a career 2-5-0 record against NOLA Gold, losing 40-24 when they met April 30 in Metairie, La.

NOLA, whose roster includes Canadian international hooker Eric Howard, is coming off a 15-10 win in Dallas.

Arrows academy graduate Matt Fish, a six-foot-three 255-pound backrower, could make his senior team debut off the bench at York Lions Stadium.

Toronto Arrows Roster

Connor Grindal, Jack McRogers, Isaac Salmon, Hank Stevenson, Mike Sheppard (capt.), Mason Flesch, James O’Neill, Travis Larsen, Will Grant, Peter Nelson, Fabian Goodall, Liam Bowman, Mitch Richardson, Kobe Faust, Shane O’Leary.


Gene Syminton, Ramon Ayarza, Conan O’Donnell, Matt Fish, Owain Ruttan, Ross Braude, Dawson Fatoric, Sam Malcolm (vice-capt.).


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 16, 2023.

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press