Familiar foes: NOLA heads north to take on the Arrows
The Gold travel to Toronto this Sunday to take on the Arrows in the inaugural Major League Rugby game in Canada.
For a few players on the team, however, the match will be in familiar territory against a handful of familiar faces.
Captain Eric Howard, prop Hubert Buydens and flanker Kyle Baillie are all from Canada, but also members of the Canadian National team.
The three said many of their teammates from the Canadian national side, or players they’ve faced previously are on the Arrows, making the game more special than the average match.
“Knowing everybody makes it a little more fun to smash into somebody or even take a shot and be like, ‘good shot, that’s great,’ get up and then do it all over again. It’s just way more fun when you can be smoking people that you know,” Buydens said.
“The best games are definitely against your friends and people you know who you play against because you might get get a good lick on them and you laugh about it and smile about it later,” Howard said.
“It’s definitely this weekend with knowing probably almost the whole starting 15 and a bunch of guys off the bench. We’re all going to be making fun of each other, going hard at each other, getting little jabs in here and there but it’s just going to be a really good game because of it.”
For Howard – who’s from outside of Toronto, it’s a bit of a homecoming, as he’ll have friends and family from the area at the game.
“I think it’s something special that I haven’t been able to do before. All the guys I played with at university, a bunch of them live in Toronto now, so they’re going to come. My club, the Brantford Harlequins, they got a bus that’s going to the game,” Howard said.
“My parents are coming. Just friends that I went to university with, or whoever moved there are going to come to the game. So, for me it’s pretty special to be able to play in front of your friends and family like I’ve never done before so I’m looking forward to it.”
For the first half of the season, the Arrows, (4-4, 22 points) played all their games on the road.
On Sunday, the Gold (6-2, 33 points) face them in the Arrows’ highly anticipated home-opener.
“I think it just puts added pressure on them because they’re really banking on the second half of the season at home, but they are as experienced playing in Toronto as anybody here is,” Buydens said.
“If we can go in and really rain on their parade and get a good win for us and get us back on the right foot and set them back, because they do expect to win these next eight games. If we can stop the party early then it’s going to bode well for us and it might turn them around,” Howard said.
For Baillie, it’s also his 28th birthday on Sunday.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s unfortunate that we won’t be able to stick around and celebrate with them a bit with those boys, but I think it’s going to be a lot of fun out there. I got some people flying in for that too, so it’s just going to make it that much bigger,” he said.
Baillie also added that having a Canadian team in the MLR provides added opportunities to rugby players back home.
“It’s big for the country. It’s big for the league. Especially all the boys back home, now they have a bit more of a direct pathway outside of the club rugby, the university rugby, now you can play professional rugby, which is huge for them, so that’s really big,” Baillie said.
In the week one home opener, the Gold beat the Arrows 36-31, with Howard scoring a try and Baillie earning ‘First XV’ honors, finishing with eight carries for 37 meters, a line break, tackle break, an offload and 12 tackles.
Howard said while Toronto has added pieces to their team since week one, he believes they haven’t changed their game plan much, but is expecting a fun, physical match up.
“We have to front up in the forwards and I think if we do that, we can stifle their plan a bit,” Howard said. “They’re just a big, physical team and pack and that’s generally how they get their go-forward ball, so they’ve tidied up their set-piece and their scrum works really well. Those are things we know we need to get into and if we don’t, we can have some issues, but we prepared very well this week to go after them and to stifle their plan.”
Sunday also marks the first starts of the season for flanker Kevin O’Connor and wing Shawn Riley.
O’Connor has been in New Orleans since February and saw his first action against Utah. In Week Nine against Austin, he was subbed in during the final 10 minutes of the match and assisted Michael Baska on his game-winning try in the Gold’s 35-31 win.
“It’s a real opportunity, especially for myself,” O’Connor said.
“We’re just looking to do our job and make the most of it. This is their first game up there so they’re going to be looking to make a statement. The next eight games up there they have home-field advantage, so they’re going to want to get off to the right start against us here this weekend. Our job is to just do our thing and follow our structure and the rest will take care of itself.”
This is the first roster Riley has made this season and he will start in place of Nick Feakes on the wing.
Riley earned a contract with the Gold before the season after being the only player signed after a 105-person try out.
“That day, I was just really focused. I had one of the best days of rugby I had. They chose me to come here. They chose me for a reason and hopefully I can prove that this weekend that I’m the right guy,” Riley said.
The Gold face the Toronto Arrows on Sunday, April 7 at 1:00 p.m.
Join the Gold faithful for a watch party at our proud sponsors: Whitey’s Fishing Hole located at: 1026 Avenue A, Marrero, LA 70072.
If you can’t make the watch party, you can stream the game on ESPN+.
If you don’t have ESPN+, a tape delay of the game will air on CST at 8:00 p.m.
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