The Toronto Arrows: Solving the missing link in Canadian rugby
By The Rugby Zone editors
Young baseball players all over Canada look to the Blue Jays as their heroes—as their team of choice.
Up-and-coming basketball players have the Raptors.
Aspiring professional Canadian rugby players have never had a professional team to turn to for inspiration.
This is a problem, said professional investor Bill Webb, a former university rugby player. And it’s the reason he decided to become the biggest investor and co-founder, along with Mark Winokur, of Canada’s only professional rugby team, the Toronto Arrows.
The Arrows are the newest team to join North America’s only professional rugby league—Major League Rugby, a league in its second year of existence. There are currently nine teams in the league, with the Arrows being the only Canadian team. This is their first season playing in the league.
“All of the investors, coaching staff and players associated with our organization share the same belief that professional rugby has been the missing link in Canada, and in North America in general,” Webb said. “It means there really has been a lack of opportunity for our Canadian players and it has really adversely affected our rank in the world, and interest in the sport in general.”
This is what Webb hopes the Arrows will help change.
“One of our main goals is we want any Canadian player who wants to play professional rugby to look to us to be their destination of choice. Not everyone will be able to play for us, but when they think about pro rugby in Canada, we want to be Canada’s team, like the Raptors or Blue Jays,” he added. “We want it to provide players the opportunity to stay in North America and play professionally, while pursuing their studies.”
Though providing opportunity to current and future generations of rugby players in Canada is his main purpose, Webb said he also hopes to turn the team into a winning one.
So far this season (at the time of the interview), the Arrows, who are made up of 85 percent Canadian players, have a five and five record. Most recently, this included a tight game loss in their first home game against the top team in the league, New Orleans’ NOLA Gold then their first home win against the Houston Sabercats.
All things considered, Webb is happy with the first half of the season. After a long road trip, the Arrows are still in play-off contention and have their home games to look forward to, Webb explained.
“We were on an eight game road trip (to start the season), which is super tough to do,” Webb said, adding that some of their top players didn’t join the team on this first trip.
“Now we’re going to be playing at home and we’re healthy and we have all our players,” he added.
On top of this, the Arrows only found out in November that they were accepted into the league, so it was a mad scramble for Webb and his team to get the team organization ready for the season.
“We had just 12 weeks to prepare for the regular season. We had to get everything ready—training, venues, logistics, travel VISAs for the non-Canadian players—just everything associated with running a professional team, so it was a real whirlwind to get it up and running in time,” he said.
The team’s record aside, Webb said their first home game at York University in Toronto turned out better than expected in terms of support for the team. They were expecting 2,000 people to show up, but they ended up selling out the stadium with more than 3,000 fans.
“And we set the record for beverage consumption at York. We ran out twice and had to get more,” Webb said with a laugh. “And there were no security issues. The police were complimentary of how our fans were so good-natured.”
Webb said he thinks this is a testament to the lessons the sport of rugby teaches, lessons he hopes more and more Canadian players in the upcoming generations will get a chance to learn through the sport of rugby, and from his Arrows team in particular.
“We just want to help grow the game of rugby. We want to grow our brand, and get more kids playing the game because we love the values of the game—discipline, integrity, real life skills that you learn through playing rugby,” he said.
Webb added: “It’s not the most mainstream sport in Canada, but it has a long tradition here and we want to re-accelerate the growth of the game. The camaraderie that develops in rugby is really unique. And it’s really the most inclusive sport out there. There’s a position for all body types and all types of people.”
Webb also pointed to rugby’s unique tradition of bringing teammates, fans and competitors together after each game as being a particularly powerful experience for all, and one that is unique to the sport.
“It’s one of the few sports where players, fans and even competitors, get together after the game, even at the professional level. The home team puts on a meal and buys drinks for the opposing team. You really get to know your teammates and your competitors, and even your fans,” he said.
There’s something about this social side of the sport that makes rugby players particularly keen to give back to the community, to inspire the next generation of athletes, Webb said.
“Our players are ambassadors for the sport. They go and watch kids’ rugby games. They know it’s their job to be ambassadors for the sport. They’re very articulate and disciplined; they’re the type of people you’d want your kids to be,” Webb said of his players.
He added: “They really do show that you can go to university or college and get an education while playing a sport you love, be a good citizen in the process and get involved with the community, and have a blast doing it.”
Written by Emily Beers