TORONTO — While just 32, Toronto Arrows head coach Peter Smith has a few stories to tell.
A fly half, the Australian played rugby professionally in Wales (Ospreys) and Japan (Coca-Cola West Red Spark and Kubota Spears) before moving to the U.S. He spent a season as a kicker at the University of Central Missouri and had a stint in arena football with the Salina Liberty in Kansas and the Bloomington Edge in Illinois.
"A heap of fun," he said of the indoor game.
He met his fiancee playing rugby for the Chicago Griffins before joining the Seattle Seawolves for Major League Rugby's debut season in 2018. He retired at the end of that year, after suffering a concussion, and joined the Arrows' coaching staff.
After three years as an assistant coach with the Arrows, Smith is now the head man. Chris Silverthorn, who coached the Arrows in his role of director of rugby, has become the team's director of player development.
The Arrows open the 2022 season Sunday in Seattle before hosting the defending champion Los Angeles Giltinis on Feb. 11 in Langford, B.C.
Smith was playing in Japan in 2014 when he was advised to take a year off due to a concussion. He did take a break from rugby, but only to try his hand at American football.
He had been working in Australia with an American football kicking coach, who helped him obtain a scholarship with the Central Missouri Mules. Having already attended the University of Sydney in Australia, he had one year of eligibility left at the Division 2 school.
He punted and handled kickoff duties. As such, he thought he would escape the physical contact.
But he was proved wrong in his second game when the returner got through the coverage and Smith had to make the tackle.
"It was a small wide receiver and I was able to wrap him up and everyone was cheering and yahoo-ing because they don't expect the kicker to make a tackle," he recalled.
Two games later, it happened again.
"He runs at me and I'm like, 'Last time it didn't hurt because of all the pads and the helmet. I didn't feel anything last time. This isn't going to hurt.' So I stick my shoulder in and man, was that painful."
He ran with the ball just once, against Northeastern State. His special-teams coach had given him the green light to run rather than punt if he saw the opening but he probably didn't expect Smith to try it from his own end zone.
Smith made it work, running for 20 yards.
Smith, whose fiancee is expecting a baby in April, will oversee an Arrows team looking forward to playing at home again after spending the 2021 season based in suburban Atlanta due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.
The Arrows (5-11-0) finished last in the Eastern Conference and 10th out of 12 teams overall.
Holding camp under a bubble in January isn't easy in Toronto, especially with recent winter storms. But Smith says the players have done what's needed.
"We've had to make a few adjustments," he said. "But look, to be honest, our team is a very resilient bunch. Just what we've been through last year, anything whether to do with COVID or we have to change this or change that, the boys are just like 'OK, what's the job we have to do? Let's just get on with it.'"
There has been plenty of turnover in the off-season with more than a dozen players, including vice-captain Ben LeSage, moving on. But the numbers are slightly misleading given the club had an expanded roster last season, with a dozen or so players leaving on international duty in the final weeks of the campaign.
Canada relies heavily on the Arrows, with national team coach Kingsley Jones including nine Toronto players in his initial 30-man travelling party for test matches against England and Wales last July. And there were 10 Arrows in the matchday squad for Canada's November test against Portugal in Lisbon.
LeSage has joined the Giltinis with New Zealand newcomer Ueta Tufuga seen as a very capable and physical replacement
"He provides us with a bit of everything in that centre position," said Smith.
Canadian international lock Kyle Baillie will add some bite to the forward pack after coming over from the NOLA Gold.
"We always hated playing against Kyle because he's just a ruthless competitor who's so good at the lineout," Smith said cheerfully. "To have him on our team this time around is invaluable for us. He's been a great addition to the squad."
Tayler Adams has moved on but fellow Kiwi Sam Malcolm returned last late season and will likely quarterback the team from fly half, with Canadian Will Kelly also available.
On Friday, the Arrows named veteran lock Mike Sheppard club captain with Malcolm and Lucas Rumball as vice-captains.
Despite all the changes, Smith says his roster has more depth this season. And he is happy with the characters of the players he has at his disposal.
The fifth season of the North American pro rugby league kicks off Saturday with 13 teams including the expansion Dallas Jackals.
The regular season will last 18 rounds with each team having two byes. As in the past, Toronto will spend almost all of the first half of the season on the road due to the Ontario winter.
After the game in Langford, the Arrows will play five straight on the road before their April 2 Toronto home opener at York Lions Stadium against Rugby ATL.
The Arrows' last league match in Toronto was June 2, 2019, when Malcolm's 77th-minute drop goal gave the team a 22-20 win over Rugby United New York at Lamport Stadium, sealing a playoff berth in the club's inaugural season.
Toronto has played 22 straight games on the road since, winning nine and losing 13. The 2020 season was cut short after five games, all on the road for the Arrows, due to the pandemic.
The Arrows did stage an exhibition game in October against the Atlantic Selects at York Lions Stadium, ending an 867-day absence from Toronto.
The regular season will conclude June 5, with the top three teams in each conference advancing to the playoffs. The championship game set for the weekend of June 25-26.
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 4, 2022
Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press