TORONTO — Pro rugby union arrived in Canada on Sunday, complete with a sellout crowd, a run on beer and a heartbreaking ending for the Toronto Arrows.
Trailing the NOLA Gold 28-19 at the half in Major League Rugby play, expansion Toronto pulled ahead 31-28 on tries by Andrew Ferguson, in the 45th minute, and Morgan Mitchell, in the 54th minute. Sam Malcolm converted the first try but saw his kick crucially hit the post for the second.
The rest of the match was an arm-wrestle with an effective Toronto defence holding off NOLA Gold, in midfield for the most part. But a penalty to the Arrows allowed the visitors from New Orleans to attack the goal-line late.
After some spirited Toronto defence, Ignacio Dotti dove over for the winning try in the 79th minute as the league-leading NOLA Gold edged the Arrows 35-31.
"Very disappointed," said Chris Silverthorn, the Arrows' director of rugby, who questioned some of the calls that went against his team late. "I thought we had it ... I'm very frustrated right now."
The expansion Arrows (4-5-0) had their first eight games on the road. They will play their next seven matches at home.
The one stand at York Alumni Stadium was filled for kickoff with the PA announcer drawing laughs when he mistakenly said the game ball was being brought out to centre ice. Attendance was announced as a sellout of 3,081 with organizers temporarily running out of beer.
The spectators got to see an entertaining game on a milestone day for Canadian rugby.
"It's awesome, because you can see here we can actually make rugby work in Canada," said veteran Arrows flanker John Moonlight, a former Canada rugby sevens captain. "Three thousand people at our first game and it's only going to get better, especially when we move down to Lamport.
"And it gives these young guys something to strive for. They can now see at home where you can go to, how you can make a living off of playing this sport."
After four games at York, the Arrows will play their final four home games of the season at Lamport Stadium.
Gaston Mieres scored two tries while Dan Moor added one for the Arrows. Malcolm kicked three conversions.
J.P. Eloff, Tristan Blewett and Canadian Eric Howard also scored tries for the visitors from New Orleans, who were also awarded a penalty try. Eloff, a U.S. international, kicked four conversions for NOLA Gold (7-2-0).
The Arrows join the Toronto Wolfpack, who play the 13-man rugby league version of the game, as pro rugby teams in Canada.
It was dream start for the Arrows, with Moor touching down in the corner for the first home try in the second minute. Malcolm converted for a 7-0 lead.
But just minutes later, NOLA was awarded a penalty try and Arrows winger Avery Oitomen was sin-binned for a dangerous tackle in the corner. Back-to-back tries by Eloff and Blewett put the visitors up 21-7 after 13 minutes.
The Arrows laid siege to the NOLA goal-line, kicking for touch and opting for scrums given several penalties. Rather than kick for goal, they kept looking for the try only to have the prolonged attack end in a handling error.
Toronto began to win control of the scrum and, after a set-piece penalty, Uruguay's Mieres went over in the corner in the 25th minute to cut the lead to 21-12.
NOLA added to its lead in the 31st minute when Howard, completing a lengthy onslaught near the Toronto goal-line, crashed over for the try. Minutes later Canadian Kyle Baillie was sin-binned for a high tackle on Oitomen.
There was some ill-temper in the game, with Arrows vice-captain Lucas Rumball complaining to no avail that a NOLA player pulled his hair while they struggled on the ground.
Mieres scored his second in the 40th minute, the last man on a Canadian overlap down the left flank.
The Arrows blanked NOLA in the second half until the decisive try.
New Orleans beat visiting Toronto 36-31 on Jan. 26 in the season opener for both teams. The Arrows, trailing 24-7 at the half, rallied for 24 points in the second half but their spirited comeback fell just short.
New Orleans is captained by Howard, a hooker who played for the nearby Brantford Harlequins. The NOLA roster also features fellow Canadian internationals Hubert Buydens and Baillie, who celebrated his 28th birthday Sunday.
"We knew it was going to be a scrap going through the whole thing," said Baillie. "It was just whoever could slug it out the full 80 (minutes)."
Silverthorn made two changes to the starting lineup that beat Utah 64-31 last time out. Hooker Andrew Quattrin returned from injury and Moonlight, whose day job is firefighter in his hometown of Pickering, Ont., made his second appearance of the season.
The Arrows' 23-man matchday squad included 14 full internationals — 13 from Canada and one from Uruguay.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press