The Toronto Arrows sadly struggled through the 2021 Major League Rugby season.
Forced to be season-long road warriors due to COVID-19, the Arrows stationed in Atlanta playing home games on the same field as Rugby ATL, where they ended the season 5-11 and out of the playoff picture.
With the Arrows out, and my love of 15s rugby, I had to find another team to cheer for.
Reluctantly, that means an American based squad, and normally it would have been the Seattle Seawolves who are two-time MLR champs, with a roster typically sprinkled with Canadian players, but Seattle has only four wins and will not be in the upcoming playoffs either.
So my attention is now on Rugby ATL, thanks to the presence of team co-Captain Matt Heaton.
Heaton, who hails from Godmanchester, Que. has been playing rugby since he was 13.
“I was looking to play football,” he told me in a recent telephone interview.
It turned out the high school football coach also happened to coach the ruby team and the young Heaton thought turning out for rugby too would endear him to the coach.
It wasn’t long before rugby won out.
“I was looking for forward to rugby season,” said Heaton, who soon found himself playing on provincial teams, and his path was set.
“I’ve been doing it ever since,” said the now 14-year veteran of the sport.
The career path has included Heaton representing Canada playing for the Canadian national rugby union team internationally. He was included in the Canadian squad for the 2019 Rugby World Cup which was held in Japan for the first time, which was his first World Cup appearance.
So what is it about rugby that won over the young Heaton?
“I think it’s the perfect combination of athleticism and intelligence ... It’s basically playing chess with gladiators,” he said.
Heaton said while it might seem rugby is just a bunch of guys bashing other guys there are decisions being made all the time about where best to attack, who to pass to, and a myriad of other choices within the game.
In 2020 Heaton moved to expansion Rugby ATL and played in three games before the season was called off due to the COVID-19 pandemic. He was named team co-captain for the 2021 season.
Heaton said coming from Quebec playing with Toronto just wasn’t a palatable option.
“Coming from Quebec I was never going to play for Toronto,” he said.
So he headed south to help forge an MLR identity in the Georgia city.
“We’re definitely ambassadors for the game . . . We’re sort of the flagship for rugby in North America,” he said, adding he believes people just need to get to a game to be hooked on rugby. He said often the reaction is “wow this is amazing. Why isn’t this a bigger deal.”
It’s the players in MLR’s job to make it a ‘bigger deal’, said Heaton, adding he believes most players are rather humble, but also approachable, which will help build a fan base.
“We’ll chitchat with anyone,” he said.
While the MLR is laying a foundation Heaton said he is hopeful the U.S. is successful in a bid to host the World Cup of Rugby in 2027 or 2031.
“I think that would open the flood gates (of interest),” said Heaton.
“Americans love action sports. Rugby is two teams beating the cr#@ out of each other for 80-minutes.”
The MLR will of course continue to foster growth in the sport. Heaton said the players “are role models to look up too,” with the MLR being a career path young players can see to aspire too.
That is likely to mean expansion, which Heaton is all for as long as it’s managed to assure there is domestic talent to stock teams.
One of the expansion teams could be in Canada he suggested, offering Montreal as a possible home, or Halifax or Newfoundland or Victoria.
In Atlanta Heaton said there is a base of rugby club teams that ATL targeted initially, and now the team is expanding to attract sport fans in general, and it seems to be working.
It helps that Rugby ATL sits atop the MLR East, which is something of a surprise for a team in in its first real season.
“Arguably we don’t have big signings,” admitted Heaton, but they like the role of underdogs.
So, why the wins?
“Basically it’s the off field work. We just work harder at it,” said Heaton.
Since the team was new it was a blank slate and they’ve made hard work a team philosophy from the start, said Heaton.
“We could decide what the team culture will be ... We’re never satisfied,” he said, adding they can win big and still want more.