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There is something to be said about the rugby community. Considering that the Rugby ATL franchise took in the Toronto Arrows without question in 2021, this spoke volumes about sportsmanship and helping out a mate. So, like many former co-tenants who go separate ways, it was fitting that the Peach State ruggers were the first team to visit the Arrows at York Lions Stadium in 2022. It is noted that the boys in blue played a home game in British Columbia (against Los Angeles) but this homecoming was special - 1035 days in the making, in fact. The result... not so special, but there are better days ahead for Canada's team.

"It's wonderful to be back here today with such a big crowd, great weather and a great rugby match. It was a really tough loss but we felt the vibe at home.... 1,000 more (tickets sold) and we're sold out, so we just want people to tell their friends what a great time they had and bring them back.... It's a great family atmosphere. We love the reception we had out in B.C... We were honoured to play out there and we are Canada's rugby team."

Bill Webb, Toronto Arrows President & General Partner

A passionate crowd of approximately 1,850 filled the stands on a brisk day at York and they gave both teams a resounding welcome to the new surroundings. The opening minutes were bumpy for the Arrows and a nervy offload near the sideline turned into dangerous possession for the Rugby ATL. Atlanta seemed committed to an expansive game using the wings to spread the Arrows' line, as a means of creating gaps for the likes of flyhalf Kurt Coleman and others.

Photo credit: Derek Bressette
The MLR kicks off in Toronto after a lengthy absence. Photo Credit: Derek Bressette

Nevertheless, the Arrows deployed a deft box kick, followed by pressure at the breakdown from captain Lucas Rumball, to force a penalty, resulting in the first points in Toronto in this decade. The scoreboard operator put up two on the board before someone in the media box pointed out that it should be in fact be three (that may or may not have been yours truly). Let’s put that one down to some rust after being a displaced team for so long.

After the restart, Rugby ATL started to show their pedigree and nearly had a try when Te Rangatira Waitokia used a chip and chase kick to get in behind the Arrows defense. The ATL had reached last year's final on the back of pressure and ball control, a combination which forced the Arrows into conceding a penalty in the 17th minute, allowing Rugby ATL to level things at 3-3 through the boot of Kurt Coleman.

Coleman would be a thorn in the side of the Arrows all day, cutting through the line often and leading his team in go forward situations. He would slot another penalty after 25 minutes to give his side the lead. With no major winds to speak of, box kicking was the order of the day from both sides. Atlanta were keen to using the kicking game to pin Toronto and they would use another chip and chase into the 5m zone of Toronto through inside centre, Will Leonard, but the Arrows countered and turned the possession into a 60m gain across the field.

Unfortunately, Arrows scrum-half, Chris Bell, would leave the game at 28 minutes with an injury that looked serious. Injuries would become a theme for the rest of the afternoon. Atlanta’s Leonard was a little slow to move on the ball and the Arrows would put pressure on him in the first half. With the scoreboard at 3-6, The Arrows went into the half with a bonus point in hand, but Atlanta seemed like they could have been up by more. Miscues and fumbles were the saving grace for the home team as they put up a solid defensive front. Atlanta continued to take advantage of front loaded lineouts and scrums, as a means of securing possession and setting up for trips to the Arrows' gain line, 22m away from the goal.

After some half time oranges and a Stephen Brett pep talk/hairdryer, the second half resumed with Atlanta coming out with more urgency than before. Despite this, more miscues lead to a fast break for the Arrows into ATL territory. With sustained pressure the home side was able to restore parity through the boot of flyhalf, Sam Malcolm. The Arrows would then take the lead through hooker, Andrew Quattrin, as he bundled over the line in the corner off a bulldozing maul to put the Arrows up 11-6 . Toronto had a sense of determination to not give up ground against their more favoured opponents.

On offense, Atlanta looked quick at the line, however, they were lacking a cutting edge to get past a stubborn Arrow's defense. In fact, Kurt Coleman would transition to fullback as the ATL opted to freshen things up among the backs with a new set up. The change worked as the Atlanta pushed towards the 5m line. Arrows' forward, James O’Neill, found himself in the sin bin after running roughshod at the try line - a game-changing moment.

Things looked peachy for Atlanta as they immediately went over for a score through the long-haired #8 Jason Damm. Coleman converted, making it 13-11. Injuries continued to mount for the home side with their already depleted inside backs losing starters. As such, ATL turned their attention towards attacking the interior of Toronto. The visitors would then secure another try with the extra man, putting the game almost out of reach at 20-11 just be.

O'Neill's return to the field was timely as ATL continued to put pressure on the Arrows. Even with even strength across both lines the ATL forced down a Big Blue maul on their own goal line. A few phases later, Will Kelly seemingly scored a try to make it 16-20 but an apparent high tackle in the lead up to the score would nullify that effort. Nevertheless, Malcolm delivered another penalty to get back within striking distance at 14-20.

"As coaches and players, we want to win all the time and it's frustrating when you know that can win the game but we made some mistakes at key moments that were costly. Yes, the bonus point is good for the season but you can never really be happy with losing... The yellow card was crucial with 14 points scored during those 10 minutes.... What I'm happy about in the final part of the game is that the bench added a lot to our game... These boys came on, put in some effort, and almost scored a try (to win the game)."

Francisco DeFormes - Arrows Forwards and Set Piece Coach

From there, the game turned into an arm wrestle. The Arrows would apply force at the Rugby ATL 5m line but the men in white refused to break, despite being bent to their limits. Their efforts were rewarded with a penalty at the breakdown would result in a turnover and with that, the game would be out of reach, as the clock ticked towards 80 minutes. The ATL win was marred by an injury to Damm right at the death, as he went down in a collision.

Final score: Rugby ATL 20, Toronto Arrows 14

Points Earned: Atlanta 4, Toronto 1

"The defense was really good. There was a lot of times where our team stuck to our system and structure and we were able to create a lot pressure and create turnovers... We'll review our game, take out the positives, take out the learnings and we'll come back stronger next week... Taking bonus point was definitely a positive."

Sam Malcolm - Toronto Arrows Flyhalf

There will be reverse fixture later in the season, when Toronto and Rugby ATL lock horns for the Fire and Ice Cup - a trophy borne out of their tenanted friendship. Atlanta are the current holders, having won the inaugural game in 2021.

The Arrows host Old Glory DC next on April 9 at York Lions Stadium with the game kicking off at12pm. The game will be on TV in Canada on TSN2 and on The Rugby Network and FS1 in the US.

Nii Wallace-Bruce

Rugby Analyst

Pro Sports Podcasters


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