TORONTO — Filling out the lineup sheet has been like a game of Whac-A-Mole this season for the Toronto Arrows as injuries keep popping up.
Solve one problem and another quickly replaces it.
The Arrows were down 13 injured players, three of whom are gone for the season, for last Saturday's 29-27 loss to the defending champion New York Ironworkers in Toronto's home opener. And while the Major League Rugby game saw several Arrows return from injury, four more went the other way after suffering concussions in the previous week's 14-11 loss at the Dallas Jackals.
Canadian international fly half Shane O'Leary was one of the returning players, making his first start as an Arrow. O'Leary signed with Toronto in October but was sidelined by a concussion suffered in training before the second game of the season Feb. 26 at the Ironworkers.
"It was unreal to be out there. It's been a couple of weeks now," the Cork-born O'Leary said in his lilting Irish accent. "Thankfully I came through the game all good as well."
Sadly that was not the case elsewhere.
With O'Leary available and missing fullbacks Ciaran Breen (injured) and Brenden Black (away with the Canadian under-23 side competing at the Tropical 7s tournament in Tampa, Fla.), talismanic vice-captain Sam Malcolm shifted to fullback from fly half.
"To have Shane and Sam both on the park at the same time, it's phenomenal," said Arrows coach Peter Smith. "Shane reads the game so well. He marshals the troops around and Sammy's that extra voice for him out wide."
The combination only lasted 73 minutes, however.
Malcom became the latest casualty when New York fly half Sam Windsor hoisted a high kick into the sky in the second half at York Lions Stadium. Malcolm, listed at five foot nine and 180 pounds, and onrushing Ironworkers wing Andrew Coe, a sturdy Canadian international listed at six foot two and 205 pounds, collided as they both went up for the ball.
Malcom got the worst of it, taking a blow to the head area in the collision, hitting the turf hard and laying there like a toppled statue. He groggily got back to his feet after some three minutes of treatment and made a slow exit supported by Arrows staff on each side.
Nor surprisingly, Malcom does not figure in Saturday's game-day lineup for Toronto (1-6-0, eight points) against the Eastern Conference-leading New England Free Jacks (5-2-0, 25 points) at York Lions Stadium.
The Kiwi star is one of 12 injured Arrows this week.
Saturday's game will be a reunion of sorts. The Free Jacks starting 15 features Canadians Andrew Quattrin, Cole Keith, Conor Keys, Ben LeSage and Spencer Jones with Foster DeWitt and Reegan O'Gorman among the replacements.
Jones, Keith, LeSage and Quattrin are all former Arrows.
Due to its climate, Toronto started the season with six straight games on the road.
It speaks volumes about the Arrows recruitment skills that they have Peter Nelson waiting in the wings. The Canadian international fly half signed April 6 for the remainder of the season and made his Toronto debut last weekend when Malcom came off.
Malcolm, O'Leary and Nelson can all play multiple positions in the backs. O'Leary will start at fly half Saturday while Nelson slots in at fullback.
Wing Dawson Fatoric, No. 8 Shay Kerry and Nelson are set to make their first starts for Toronto while Connor Grindal could make his Arrows debut off the bench
Despite the spate of injuries, the Arrows matchday 23 features 10 internationals: eight from Canada and one each from Chile and Ireland.
Nelson and O'Leary, both Irish-born with Canadian connections, were members of Canada’s 2019 Rugby World Cup squad. Nelson started all three of Canada's games at fly half while O'Leary came in off the bench against South Africa.
Nelson, who has won 15 caps for Canada, spent the last two years with Aurillac in the French second tier. The 30-year-old is eligible for Canada through his Vancouver-born grandmother.
O'Leary, 29, has earned 14 caps for Canada since making his international debut against Georgia in June 2017 In 2013, he helped Canada under-20 side to second place at the Junior World Trophy, leading the tournament in scoring with 45 points.
O’Leary qualifies for Canada because his mother was born in Campbellton, N.B. His grandfather, a doctor, came to Canada to work and had three kids before moving the family back to Ireland when Shane’s mother was a toddler.
O’Leary spent the last two seasons with Rouen Normandie in the French second tier. Before that, he played for Ealing Trailfinders and Nottingham over three years in England's second-tier Championship. He led the league in scoring in 2018-19 with 186 points for Nottingham.
The five-foot-10, 200 pounder started his career in 2013 as a teenager with the Grenoble academy in France before returning to Ireland to spend three seasons with Connacht.
O'Leary says his time in France had run its course and Toronto was an attractive destination because he knew a lot of the players. Plus his girlfriend is Canadian, from Prince Edward Island, and was working for a Canadian-based company while in Europe so now is back in the right time zone.
O'Leary says the move was not related to the Canadian national team. He has not pulled on a Canadian jersey since the World Cup.
"If it's to be, it's to be. If it's not, it's not. I don't really have selection in my hands in terms of that," said O'Leary. "I was keen to get into a good environment, work hard and try to put my best foot forward to get selected here (with Toronto)."
O'Leary is the oldest of five children. His youngest sister, Maeve Og O'Leary, plays for the Irish women's rugby team and has also represented her country in softball along with his other sister Sinead.
Toronto Arrows Lineup
Ramon Ayarza, Gene Syminton, Lolani Faleiva, Mike Sheppard, Adrian Wadden, Mason Flesch, Lucas Rumball (capt.), Shay Kerry, Ross Braude, Shane O'Leary, Dawson Fatoric, Noel Reid, Mitch Richardson, D’Shawn Bowen, Peter Nelson.
Jack McRogers, Connor Grindal, Nik Hildebrand, Mitch Eadie, James O’Neill, Will Grant, Fabian Goodall, Kobe Faust.
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This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 14, 2023