Learn about part one of my interview with Bill Webb. Webb is a co-founder of the Toronto Arrows, which joined Major League Rugby (MLR) in 2018. The organization was formed in 2017 as the Ontario Arrows.
Bill Webb, co-founder of the Toronto Arrows – Interview
In a two-part exclusive, one-on-one interview, Raheem Bashir gained an insight from Bill Webb on why and how the Arrows became the most widely professional franchise team out of Canada.
Question #1: How did you get involved with rugby union?
“I played for my high school team at Brantford Collegiate, Ontario, and we had a very strong rugby program there. So, I was introduced to the game that way and then played for my local club, the Brantford Harlequins RFC U18’s, as a junior, and I played and loved the game. While I was in high school, we did a tour of Wales and I just really loved the ethos, values, and style of the game.
And I played at Wilfrid Laurier University for four years, and then moved to England for work. I played briefly for the Wasps for one of their teams there until I got injured. So that was the end of my playing career when I was about 24 years old, but then got back into the game when I had kids. So that is my history of being involved in the game.
When did you start talking about bringing a MLR team to Toronto?
I think we first heard about MLR in 2017, when there was talk about formation. I heard that through the grapevine, through my introduction to Mark Winokur and the Ontario Blues, the provincial amateur team at the time who played the Glendale Raptors.
They were one of the best club teams in the United States that was going to join MLR. The Ontario Blues beat the Raptors in an exhibition game here in Burlington, Ontario. Mark and I met that day and we started talking Rumore about MLR.
We decided that rather than jump right in and join the league, that we would play an exhibition season, and see whether we can field a competitive team and consider joining MLR and doing research and development projects.
We got a few people and sponsors together, so we backed the team for a year. As we were an exhibition team, we weren’t paying the players. We played a number of teams that were going to join the MLR and we did quite well in those exhibition games. That gave us confidence that we can field a competitive team.
We wanted 75% or more of the players to be Canadian, because it is very important to us to develop Canadian talent, and to be a Canadian team, not just in name, but in body as well. We applied late in 2018 for membership in the MLR. We were granted that in November of 2018. We started playing in January of 2019, for the MLR season, and we did very well. We got to the semi finals in our very first year. So that was how the team began.
It was based off the existence of many players who were amateur, many of whom played for the Ontario Blues, and played under Mark Winokur who had been a coach and a general manager, and Chris Silverthorn, who’d been a coach of the Ontario Blues.
Many of the other Canadian players came from other provinces and we also recruited a number of foreign players. But we’ve always been based on the philosophy that the vast majority of the team will be Canadian eligible players so that we could help develop Canadian talent and develop the game here in Canada.
We not only wanted to improve the competitiveness of our national side of our national team, but also to develop role models, and heroes. Obviously, we want to grow the sport generally, that is rugby union and 15, sevens, boys, girls, men’s and women’s. We work very closely with our national union and our provincial unions with various organizations like the Toronto Intercity Rugby Foundation, indigenous groups, and LGBTQ groups. Rugby union is a very inclusive sport. In that spirit, we try to work with whoever and wherever we can help to grow the game and the fan base.
Would you like to see a second or third Canadian team in MLR?
Yes, when it is needed, and when there’s support for it. I mean, you can’t just create a team overnight. It requires a lot of money to join MLR. So perhaps one day, there will be another Canadian team. There does not appear to be anything imminent at the moment. We have thirteen teams in MLR.
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We want to grow very methodically, and make sure that we are growing domestic North American and Canadian talent. It has to be a big market. There are many other big cities in the United States, and this is essentially an American League.
You want to have the biggest markets in North America, but there is only one really big market in Canada, and that’s the GTA (Greater Toronto Area). There are other cities that are very supportive of rugby union, but they’re not large markets. They must have the funding, the players, expansion fees, and a place to play. The bottom line is I would like to see more good cities, whether they’re in Canada or in the United States in the league, but they need to be ready. However, it’s a lot of work, and it requires a lot of capital, and a lot of organization.
How important was it for Rugby Canada and the Toronto Arrows to acquire the coaching services of Rob Howley?
Acquiring Rob Howley is a big positive. So, this was initiated by Kingsley Jones, the coach of Rugby Canada, who is close friends with Rob Howley. He has a great track record as a terrific player for Wales and for the British and Irish Lions, as well as being an assistant coach for the British and Irish Lions and for Wales. We found out that there was an opportunity to bring Rob over to work with the Toronto Arrows.
Howley is a wonderful person, a wonderful rugby person, and he is an incredible coach. He had obviously worked with us throughout our whole training camp, even before Rob came out last year, and he had participated in Rugby Canada’s development camp.
Many Arrows players and players from the Pacific Pride Program participated in that camp for three weeks in Victoria last year in November. Rob was there as part of that, as was our coaching staff. We’ve developed a very, very good relationship. He is a terrific coach and has had a big impact and worked with us throughout our whole training camp. He stayed here up until a couple of weeks ago and he traveled with the team down to Atlanta on a number of our first road games.
Rob still works with our team remotely via Zoom. So, Rob talks regularly with our coaches. His style of play can be seen, particularly in the game last week in Seattle. Rob has had a big influence on our style of attack and he has helped our players. Now, one of his jobs is to work with our coaches, and to help them develop into being even better coaches by sharing his knowledge, techniques, and his communication style, which is fantastic.
And so, he will be coming back to work with us again later in the season. We really look forward to having him back. He is a really great person.
Overview of the Bill Webb Interview
Bill Webb spoke about many different topics. This included talking about how the Arrows were formed and the steps they took to get an MLR team. He also talked about his background in rugby union, his thoughts on possibly another Canadian MLR team, and acquiring the services of Rob Howley.
This is just the first part of the interview with Webb. The second part will talk about how COVID-19 impacted the Arrows and the future of rugby union with both Toronto and Rugby Canada.
The interview took place on April 24.
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