A Chat with Bill Webb of Rugby Canada and Toronto Arrows
There's no doubt Bill Webb is a valuable member of the Canadian rugby community, he serves on the Canada U20 support group, he's the major owner of the Toronto Arrows, he's a Director on the Rugby Canada board and is a contributing member of the Canadian Rugby Foundation. Through the Toronto Arrows he's helped to support rugby initiatives in the Ontario area. The women's Canadian Club Championship in Toronto and the upcoming Canadian University Championships in Montreal are examples of events that receive support from Bill Webb and the Arrows both logistically and financially.
He wears a lot of hats in the Canadian rugby world, which isn't all that uncommon, as there often aren't enough people volunteering and people have to do double duty. At one time besides running BC Rugby News, I was president of the North Island Rugby Union, a Director on the Thunder Indigenous Rugby Board and running the websites for the Canadian Rugby Foundation, Canadian Club Championship and Canadian University Championship. So I feel I have some insights into the subtle dynamics of wearing multiple hats, especially in the areas of how it affects people you deal with. With that background I raised the question in an article last month on whether the dual role of Arrows owner and Rugby Canada Director could have an effect on decision making by Rugby Canada personnel, specifically in the area of player selection. That raised the ire of several people, one of which was Bill himself, we decided to have a chat on the phone afterwards to clarify some of the issues and the following is based on that conversation.
On the question of any special relationship between Rugby Canada and the Toronto Arrows, Bill explained he did everything by the book, he declared it to the board when he applied for MLR membership and when anything is discussed at the Rugby Canada Board level concerning MLR he recuses himself and leaves the room. I then asked whether Rugby Canada gives special media attention to the Arrows compared to other MLR teams, Bill explained that the Arrows are the only MLR team with a specific goal of growing Canadian rugby, the "explicit goal of the people behind the Toronto Arrows is to grow rugby in Canada and to improve the level of play, to grow the sport... there are advantages from a player's standpoint to being part of the Arrows – they don't have to get a visa, they don't have to move out of this country".
He then went on to talk about the Arrows plan for an academy team, "we will be developing an academy, Mark – stay tuned for more information on that – but we will be developing an academy which won't be in competition with the Pacific Pride but it'll be complimentary. I'm a huge supporter of the Pride and, if a young man gets selected for that and if it's more convenient for him to be out west and doing that, that's incredible, that's fantastic. I'm all for it. That will help his professional rugby career, I'm sure, whether it's with the Arrows or any other MLR team and it should help his prospects for the Canadian National team down the road."
On the matter of team selection for the Arrows and looking for Canadian talent, "if there is a tie between two players competing for our roster, the tie will always go to the Canadian guy but the truth of the matter is you're selecting guys based on their capability and their commitment, and their ethics, and how they conduct themselves on and off the field. We believe there's lots of talent in Canada so we went out of our way in that first season to have as many Canadian players as we possibly could, recognizing we're not going to get them all, which is fine, players are free to go wherever they want. But, if for some reason they prefer to be in Canada or they want to be on a team that happens to be based out of Canada, great."
Does Rugby Canada try to influence where a player goes? Bill was adamant on this, "There's nobody from Rugby Canada who is going to say, you need go here, to the Arrows or somewhere else – they're going to let the players decide. It's up to us [Arrows] to show that we have really strong coaching, that we have a good high-performance program, that we have great medical staff and good facilities and that we look after our players on and off the field and that we're fair in the way we deal with them."
So is there an advantage to playing for the Arrows for national selection compared to other MLR teams, we asked Bill. His reply, "I really don't think so, that selection for the national team is entirely the responsibility of Kingsley Jones and his staff. We have nothing to do with it. Would Kingsley call around to any coach that's got Canadian players, any MLR coach, and ask how is so-and-so doing? Or check in with that player or check in with the medical staff of the team? I think mathematically we've managed to attract the biggest proportion of Canadian players on our roster but we don't have them all – there's great [Canadian] players on other MLR teams. Kingsley's job is to pick the best squad – that's how he gets evaluated, how his team does, not where he chooses the players from. The good news is that between what we're doing and what all the other MLR teams are doing, it's giving him a lot more quality people to look at which just bodes well for our sport, for rugby in Canada."
Do the Arrows specifically target Ontario players for the team, his reply on that, "The reason there was a predominance of Ontario players in the first year is 1) biggest population, 2) we only got admitted to the league on November 2nd of last year. We had to be competing January 26th for our first game. It was the easiest thing for us to do and it's where most of our relationships were with coaching staff and players who were able to get here and players who hadn't already been selected by other MLR teams. A lot of them had played for the Ontario Blues before but there wasn't any program to target just Ontario, it just happened to be a fair number of guys were here but clearly we did reach out, for example, Pat Parfrey from Newfoundland and Giuseppe Du Toit from BC."
We talked about next year and the expansion, what were his thoughts, "We're thrilled, it's great that the league is expanding. In our opinion, the New England Free Jacks, the DC Glory, and the Atlanta Rugby ATL are run by really solid people. We know they've been working hard putting together high-quality programs. We love the fact that there's going to be two divisions of six teams each and that'll help intensify some of those rivalries and build interest in MLR and we'll still get to play those teams in the West once. We're looking forward to it. There's still complexities in scheduling. The MLR is getting pretty close in finalizing the schedule. I don't know the date honestly when that's going to be announced but we're getting close. It's added more complexity obviously with more teams. We're shifting the starting date of the season back a little bit from late January to early February and pushing the end of the season back to late June but we'll still be done before the test window in July."
When we asked about expansion in 2021 he indicated "There are other teams that will be announced and there is currently planned a further expansion in 2021 but I'm not at liberty to say who those teams are because it hasn't been publicly announced."
We asked about a buy-in figure for 2021, he obviously wouldn't disclose a specific number but did indicate, "the bar has risen substantially in terms of the financial resources that you need to be able to prove you have available today, in the present, in order to even negotiate for an MLR franchise and that's simply because we want to make sure that the people who are backing the league – the groups, the individuals, whoever they are – are well-funded and able to see through the growth, especially through the early years."
We also wanted to know about franchises moving, we see it in other pro sports, he didn't want to delve into that too much but did say, "there are rules on how we go about that as a league because we do mutually own the league together but the league would be pragmatic – and there's nothing, I don't even want to suggest there's anything currently underway there. To my knowledge, there's nobody moving at the moment but is it possible? Yes, it is. If the league and the owners decide that it makes more sense for a team to be somewhere else then, under a certain set of circumstances, that can happen but there is nothing currently underway."
Our final question was about sharing the Toronto marketplace with the Rugby League team, the Toronto Wolfpack, "We have no formal relationship. We've actually played four of our games at Lamport Stadium so we do share, we have used the same facility. We played a number of our games at York University and then a number of them at Lamport. We are still finalizing locations – we are very happy with both. We're still finalizing locations for next year – I'd say both Lamport, York, and other venues that we haven't used yet – they've all enthusiastically wanted us to play games in those spots next year, so we're working away on that. The Wolfpack is a different league, it's great that the word rugby is out there more, but we have no formal relationship."
The Arrows and Bill Webb are doing good things for Canadian rugby, especially out east in the Ontario region. Does that mean we're Toronto Arrows fans first and foremost, I'll say they'll be our favourite team in the eastern conference but Seattle Seawolves are the regional team in BC, they have a lot of high profile BC players like Phil Mack, Brock Staller, George Barton, Nakai Penny. Curry Hitchborn of UBC initially seeded the team with talent and Karl Harrison of Vancouver did the contract signing. Rugby people from BC are likely to go down for the weekend to support the Seawolves and visit Seattle, not too many are going to hop a plane to Toronto but I'm sure all wish success to the Arrows program and hopefully Seattle will meet Toronto in the final in 2020... and hopefully BC will get a franchise in 2021.