YORKTON - It was one of the most notable days in pro sports although many sport fans probably were not aware it happened.
When the Toronto Arrows took to the field to host a Major League Rugby game April 2, it was quite likely a record of the weirdest nature. After 1035 days and 30 matches away from the city, the Arrows were back on home turf at York Lions Stadium.
While visiting Rugby ATL of Atlanta spoiled the homecoming with a 20-14 win, it was still a triumphant return in terms of the perseverance of the Arrows. (TO has since defeated Old Glory DC 32-27 April 9).
“The emotions were incredibly high,” Arrows captain Mike Sheppard told Yorkton This Week, adding having cheering fans behind the team was uplifting, which at times was a positive and maybe at times a bit of a negative.
“It definitely helped in some cases,” he said, adding at times the added adrenaline might have led to a few miscues.
But in the end being home for the first time since 2019 “was nothing less than fantastic. It was amazing,” offered Sheppard.
Sheppard said it is simply a different atmosphere at home, even just coming onto the field to warm-up and “hear people cheering and see them with signs. It’s a huge impact.”
And in-game the fans can give players the occasional boost they need via a big cheer as an Arrow breaks through the line and goes for a big run, or a player lays a big hit on an opposing ball carrier, said Sheppard.
“You feed off that. We feed off our fans,” he said, adding after so long away “It was a weird feeling (to have fans again).”
Of course Sheppard has seen it all as an Arrow.
In many ways he has been a cornerstone of the franchise since day one.
Sheppard, 33, is in his fourth season after featuring in 32 matches (25 starts) for the club since 2019.
Going into the 2022 season the big lock led the franchise in several statistical categories, including tackles (326), dominant tackles (22), and carries (258). Sheppard has accumulated 1,109 carry metres, 14 lineout takes, nine tackle breaks, seven offloads, five linebreaks, and one lineout steal over his three years with the team. His eight tries are the most amongst forwards in club history.
Given the numbers and experience it’s not surprising he was named team captain ahead of the current campaign.
“It’s really heartwarming to be chosen by teammates for this role,” said Sheppard in a release at the time of the captaincy announcement. “Earlier this preseason, our team got together for a player-based vote, and we wrote down traits that we admired about one another. A collective of guys emerged as the team’s core leadership group – a group made up of teammates that I respect and am proud to lead alongside – and it’s an honour to know my teammates back me to go and fight for them.”
Sheppard at least gets to lead the team through a season more normal than they have experienced recently.
In 2021 the team played, but were living in Atlanta and playing ‘home’ games there because of issues teams faced crossing the border because of COVID-19 restrictions.
Looking back, Sheppard said it was a crazy season.
“I sort of blanked it (the season) out. It was just uncomfortable in every sense of the word,” he told Yorkton This Week.
Sheppard said it was an unusual situation living with the team all season.
“You never had that separation from rugby and life,” he said.
But, that is in the past, and Sheppard and Arrows are now focused on being among the top three teams in the east as those make the playoffs. It won’t be easy considering how competitive the MLR has become, said Sheppard.
“I’m pleasantly surprised by the parity in the league. It’s kind of anybody can win on a given day,” he said, adding in the early year’s certain teams – such as Seattle – dominated.
Now with an influx of international talent and developing North American base, the growing league is competitive from top to bottom. And, the league is expected to grow again, with Chicago and St. Louis rumoured to join in 2023.
“That’s all I’m hearing too,” said Sheppard, regarding the possible locations for new teams. He said any growth is hugely positive.
“It shows more people want to be part of the league at the ownership level,” he said.
As the MLR grows at the professional level, it has a trickledown effect in growing the sport across North America. When asked about the importance of the league in that regard Sheppard replied, “probably as important as it can be.”
Sheppard said the MLR shows young athletes there is a pathway to a career in rugby at home that has not existed before.
“You can make something of it if you like rugby,” he said, adding even when he was young if you dreamed of a pro career in sport it was hockey, or football or baseball, not rugby. The MLR has created that dream for the sport.
That will hopefully mean “more and more talent will get drawn to the sport,” he added.
Having a place to develop at a pro level will hopefully get the Canadian National Men’s Team back on track after failing to the qualify for the upcoming World Cup – the team’s first time sitting on the sidelines as spectators at the event.
Sheppard has been part of the national program earning 11 caps for Canada since making his international debut against Kenya in November 2018. He represented Canada at the 2019 Rugby World Cup, which he looks back on the highlight of his career.
“It was the only one I’m going to get. I’ll never have that experience again,” he said, adding their is nothing like a crowd of tens of thousands cheering a game of rugby.