While Rugby Canada continues its due diligence on pro rugby, an Ontario club is taking the first step up the North American ladder.
The Ontario Arrows will make their debut Saturday in Colorado against the Glendale Merlins.
The Arrows are a beefed-up off-shoot of the Ontario Blues, a regional squad that plays in the Canadian Rugby Championship. Saturday is the first move on a journey that could eventually lead to joining Major League Rugby — a North American circuit set to kick off in 2018.
Gendale is already slated to be part of the new league. The Ontario team is testing the waters.
"What we've all decided is our domestic players need a more professional environment and more games to play in," said Mark Winokur, who serves as team manager both for the Ontario Blues, Arrows and the Canadian senior men's team.
"It looks like they're could be a bigger opportunity coming in North America in the next year or two. We feel like we need to be a part of it, make that next step beyond what we can do with the Blues."
While officials on both side of the border believes professional rugby is needed to up the North American game, getting it rolling has proved difficult. PRO Rugby, which featured several Canadians spread among five U.S. teams, went on hiatus after one season.
Like Rugby Canada, USA Rugby has been in talks with Super Rugby and the Guinness Pro 14, a pro league that recently added two South African sides — the Cheetahs and Southern Kings, both formerly of Super Rugby — to its existing franchises in Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales.
The Arrows' game has been sanctioned by Rugby Canada.
"They're happy to see our players get more game time and they (Rugby Canada) don't have to contribute financially to it," Winokur said. "I don't think this will prevent or change any of those discussions with those other leagues. There's enough players developing in the country that it could support a couple of professional franchises playing in the North American league and then perhaps a single franchise playing in one of the other top world leagues."
Winokur hopes Saturday's game — and more down the line — will help sell potential investors on pro rugby.
"It's much easier when you have proof of concept to move forward."
The Arrows are looking at a couple of possible home venues, inside and outside Toronto. But Saturday's game will be the lone Arrows contest of the season "because we're running out of time," said Winokur.
A Canada 'A' tour in October and Canada test match in November will tie up the players.
Ontario, playing under the Blues name, and Glendale, under the Raptors banner, met in Burlington, Ont., in May with Ontario winning 43-25.
The Arrows squad features 17 of the 23 players from that game plus Alex Forrest, Pat Parfrey, Guiseppe du Toit, Pete Milazzo, Kyle Lagasca and Mitch Richardson.
Rob Brouwer (capt.), Eric Howard, Alex Forrest, Mike Sheppard, Hank McQueen, Pete Milazzo, Lucas Rumball, Andrew Wilson, Andrew Ferguson, Pat Parfrey, Jon West, Guiseppe du Toit, Josh Campbell, Kainoa Lloyd, Johnny Sheridan.
A.J. Quattrin, Pat Lynott, Ryan Surgenor, Paul Ciulini, Marcello Wainwright, Mario Vanderwesthuizen, Mitch Richardson, Kyle Lagasca.
Head coach: Chris Silverthorn.
Assistant coach: Cory Hector.
Manager: Mark Winokur.
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