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Arrows missing more than a dozen players for long-awaited home opener

Toronto Arrows Toronto Arrows - The Canadian Press

TORONTO — The Toronto Arrows play at home Saturday for the first time this season after six straight road games. By rights, they should arrive in an ambulance for the meeting with the defending Major Rugby League champion New York Ironworkers.

Injuries have taken their toll on Toronto (1-5-0, six points) ahead of the game at York Lions Stadium.

"It's absolutely decimated us," lamented Arrows coach Peter Smith. "We've got about 15 guys out at this point in time. And most of those guys are starters as well.

"It's given opportunities to some of the younger guys who have really stepped up. And we've had some reinforcements come back."

But the door to the training room keeps swinging. While the Arrows get several players back this week, the team lost four others to concussions in last weekend's 14-11 loss at the Dallas Jackals.

Nic Benn (shoulder) and Micaiah Torrance-Read (knee) are gone for the season.

Eleven others are unavailable this week through injury: Ciaran Breen, Cole Davis, Mitch Eadie, Mason Flesch, Travis Larsen, Conan O’Donnell, Avery Oitomen, Tyler Rowland, Isaac Salmon, Tautalatasi Tasi and Corey Thomas.

Make that 12 with fullback Brenden Black away with the Canadian under-23 side competing at the Tropical 7s tournament in Tampa, Fla.

"We just haven't been able to get any continuity and build certain combinations … It's been a bit of a nightmare," said Smith.

"Trust me we're not doing a lot of contact in our (training) sessions. It's just been a bad run of luck," he added.

Injuries aside, Smith also believes his team's record is partly due to improvements to rival sides across the league

"This is a much stronger squad (than last year) and we haven't been winning games," he said. "There are just some great quality players within the league, both domestic and foreign."

The extent of Toronto's injury bug is shown by the fact that only three players who started in the season-opening 17-10 loss at Rugby ATL on Feb. 17 were in the starting 15 for last Saturday's game in Arlington, Texas.

The three are scrum half Ross Braude, fly half/vice-captain Sam Malcolm and back-rower/captain Lucas Rumball. And Malcolm is shifting to fullback Saturday with Breen injured and Black away. Shane O'Leary, back from the injured list, will start at No. 10.

Malcolm scored all 27 points in the Arrows' lone win, a 27-26 decision March 11 at the expansion Chicago Hounds. The lively Braude has helped sparked the offence while Rumball has done a lot of heavy lifting in the forwards.

"I don't know how he hasn't been injured," Smith said of Rumball, who made his 45th appearance for the Arrows last Saturday. "I think we all watch games and see him put his body in places, just expecting him not to get up from a ruck. And then all of a sudden he emerges. … His body's taken an absolute beating but he's been amazing. He's our leader. He drives the boys. He drives the standards."

The Arrows coach does not believe the heavy travel schedule has led to the injuries, although he says it is one of many challenges.

While frustrated at being unable to field his strongest lineup, Smith takes pride in the contributions and attitude of his walking wounded.

"You see all our experienced guys who are out injured doing all the homework on the opposition, going through film with some of the younger guys in their position who are getting the start because they are out and just helping coach and develop our younger guys coming through."

Toronto added to its numbers Thursday by signing Canadian international fly half Peter Nelson for the remainder of the season. The 30-year-old spent the last two seasons with Aurillac in the French second tier.

The Irish-born Nelson, whose grandmother was born in Vancouver, has scored 69 points in 15 appearances for Canada and was a member of the Canadian World Cup squad in 2019.

Lock Adrian Wadden and wing Mitch Richardson return from injury. Shay Kerry, a lock who has been playing in France, has also joined the team and will be one of the replacements.

The four going through concussion protocols are Eadie, Oitomen, Rowland and Salmon, said Smith, whose own playing career was cut short by concussions.

Starting on the road is nothing new to the Arrows, given the Canadian climate and the mid-February start to the MLR season.

In their inaugural 2019 season, they started with eight games away from home and went 4-4-0. In 2020 they opened 4-1-0 on the road, with one game in a neutral site (Las Vegas) before the season was halted due to the pandemic.

In 2021, they spent the entire season away from home — based in suburban Atlanta due to pandemic-related border restrictions. And last year, they were 4-3-0 on their opening road trip, which included one game in Langford, B.C.

The defending champion Ironworkers (3-3-0, 15 points) are coming off a 31-20 home victory over Rugby ATL.

Canadian internationals Quinn Ngawati and Andrew Coe start on the wing for New York..

The Arrows lost their opening two games to Rugby ATL and the Ironworkers (39-3) before bouncing back to edge the expansion Chicago Hounds. Losses followed to Old Glory D.C. (29-3), the Utah Warriors (47-19) and Dallas Jackals.

The win by Dallas was the first ever by the second-year franchise, snapping a 23-game losing streak.

The lengthy road trip over, the Arrows play eight of their remaining 10 games at home.

"Can't wait, honestly," Smith said. "We've actually had a few people come down to our (away) games. It's nice to have a couple of people here and there cheering for you. But it's going to be great playing in front of our fans this weekend. We're just looking forward to not having to go to the airport and not having to go through customs."

There is room to make up with Toronto currently bottom of the six-team Eastern Conference, five points behind Rugby Atl.

Scoring has been a challenge with the Arrows posting a league-worst 73 points. Dallas, with 92 points having played one extra game, is the only other team with fewer than 100 points scored.

Toronto Arrows

Ramon Ayarza, Gene Syminton, Lolani Faleiva, Mike Sheppard (vice-capt.), Adrian Wadden, Owain Ruttan, James O’Neill, Lucas Rumball (capt.), Ross Braude, Shane O’Leary, Mitch Richardson, Noel Reid, Fabian Goodall, D’Shawn Bowen, Sam Malcolm (vice-capt.).


Jack McRogers, Nik Hildebrand, Marc-Antoine Ouellet, Shay Kerry, Hank Stevenson, Will Grant, Dawson Fatoric, Peter Nelson.


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This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 7, 2023