TORONTO — The Toronto Arrows are under the bubble in nearby Whitby, gearing up for the March 20 start of the Major League Rugby season.
They soon will be taking up residence 1,200 kilometres south in Marietta, Ga., a suburb of Atlanta. The team is scheduled to leave Toronto on March 18 for its season opener against Rugby ATL two days later and will stay in Georgia until pandemic-related border restrictions allow U.S. sides into Canada.
The Arrows will share facilities with Rugby ATL, which plays at Life University's Lupo Field, some 35 kilometres northwest of the city. The San Diego Legion, meanwhile, will play their home games in Las Vegas because of the COVID-19 situation in California.
The league was five weeks into its 2020 season when it halted play temporarily on March 12 due to the pandemic. A week later it called off the season.
Despite the lengthy break, Arrows coach Chris Silverthorn said his players have come into camp looking good.
"It's been great, it's been absolutely fantastic. Guys have come in with a lot of energy," he said. "And to be honest with you, you've got a bunch of 20-year-olds who have been locked up for a year and they're just happy to be able to come out of their house legally and hang out and do stuff.
"It's quite a different path we're on. They were so excited the first week just to be out and about."
Still, the camp is anything but normal as the team trains in a COVID-19 bubble.
The plan is for the team to spend the first three weeks in Georgia in a hotel before deciding whether to stay there or find alternate local accommodation. Silverthorn hopes they will be able to return home sooner than later.
"Honestly the players, they're excited but nervous as well," said Silverthorn. "I mean we're coming from a place in Canada here where we obey the rules and take precautions to a place that's pretty much wide-open.
"And COVID seems to be a lot worse (there) than where we are. But because of the border being closed, we just can't do it here."
The team plans to take some 30 players and eight staff down south.
Wherever they call home, the Arrows should bring attacking flair with them, drawing on domestic and international talent.
South American newcomers this season include Argentina's Joaquin Tuculet, Manuel Montero, Gaston Cortes and Juan Cruz Gonzalez. Cortes is a prop with the other three are backs although at six foot five, winger Montero would not look out of place in the forward pack.
At five foot seven and 185 pounds, Gonzalez is at the other end of the size spectrum. He and Tuculet are expected to compete at fullback.
"He's not very big in stature but he's like trying to catch a water-bug," Silverthorn said of Gonzalez.
Tuculet is another catch.
The 31-year-old has won 56 caps for Argentina, appearing at two World Cups, and spent the last five seasons with Super Rugby's Los Jaguares after stints with Sale Sharks in England, Cardiff in Wales and Grenoble and Bordeaux in France.
The Arrows started camp Feb. 8. Everyone has now arrived, with some of the South Americans coming later due to visa delays and quarantine.
Captain Dan Moor, a Canadian international winger, has retired while New Zealand fly half/fullback Sam Malcolm has joined a club in Japan.
Returning South Americans include Argentina's Tomas de la Vega and Uruguayans Leandro Leivas, Manuel Diana and Gaston Mieres. New Zealand's Tayler Adams returns at fly half with Canadian Will Kelly also available at No. 10.
Domestic additions of note include prop Marc-Antoine Ouellet, a former Laval defensive lineman.
"He might be the strongest kid in the country in rugby right now," said Silverthorn. "His rugby IQ maybe isn't quite where we need it to (be)."
Ouelett is training part-time with the Arrows while finishing his engineering degree at Laval. The six-foot-three 270-pounder, who won the Vanier Cup with the Rouge et Or in 2106, spent 2019 with Rugby Canada's Pacific Pride developmental side.
At six foot three and 245 pounds, B.C. back-rower Siaki Vikilani is another big-unit addition from the Pride.
The Arrows have added talent at scrum half in the form of Irish-born Jason Higgins and South African-born Ross Braude, both of whom are eligible to play for Canada through family bloodlines. They join Canadians Andrew Ferguson and Jamie McKenzie in the battle for the No. 9 shirt.
MLR, entering its fourth season, is home to some 60 Canadians, according to national team coach Kingsley Jones.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 2, 2021