TORONTO — Facing an extended stay in the U.S. due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, Toronto Arrows fullback Patrick Parfrey won’t be short of things to do.
Away from rugby, the 29-year-old from St. John’s is working on his PhD in clinical epidemiology.
“If there’s downtime, I know what I’ll be doing,” he said.
His thesis is on acute stroke care in Newfoundland.
“It’s bit of a slow process, with playing rugby at the same time,” he said. “But my supervisor committee has been helping me through it, especially in the last couple of months with the distance and all that stuff. It’s been rolling pretty well the last couple of weeks.”
Parfrey and the Arrows were scheduled to fly to Atlanta on Thursday ahead of Saturday’s Major League Rugby season opener against Rugby ATL. The Atlanta area will remain their home until border restrictions are relaxed.
The travelling party of 30 players and eight staff will spend the first few weeks in a hotel in suburban Marietta, home to Life University’s Lupo Family Field where the Atlanta team plays. The Arrows will review other local housing options after that.
League commissioner George Killebrew is grateful the Toronto team is making the sacrifice.
“It shows their grit and their determination, to literally pick up stakes and move out of their country and go to Atlanta, Georgia to get the matches in,” he said. “I don’t think it would have been an unreasonable request by them to say ‘Hey, maybe we should sit this one out’ or something like that.
“But they have done an awesome job in making this happen.”
it hasn’t been easy, given the ever-changing restrictions on both sides of the border. Arrows GM and vice-president Mark Winokur calls it “the most difficult trip I have even tried to pull together.”
Parfrey is happy to be back playing rugby, however, after missing the truncated 2020 MLR season. He was at home doing schoolwork at the start of the year and the season had been cancelled by the time he was slated to return.
“So getting back to the environment and joining my teammates has been a lot of fun the last couple of weeks,” he said.
The Arrows were atop the Eastern Conference at 4-1-0 when the 2020 campaign was cancelled in mid-March. It was a sudden end to the league’s third season, which featured new franchises in Atlanta, New England and Washington, D.C.
In the months that followed, the Colorado Raptors withdrew from the league. The expansion Dallas Jackals and Los Angeles Giltinis came on board although Dallas decided in January to push back its arrival until 2022.
The San Diego Legion has opted to play the 2021 season out of Las Vegas due to pandemic-related restrictions in California.
Parfrey has won 32 caps for Canada, making his debut against the U.S. in Edmonton in May 2013.
An injury replacement for Canada at the 2015 World Cup, he also took part in the 2019 tournament in Japan. That same year, he was named Rugby Canada’s senior player of the year,
In 2015, Parfrey was playing a club game in Newfoundland when the call came to summon him as a World Cup replacement for Connor Braid, who suffered a broken jaw and concussion in a loss to Italy.
Unable to reach Parfrey, Canadian team officials in England eventually called the gym across the street from the field where he was playing and had one of the workers there run on the field to get him off the field.
His teammates weren’t too happy at the intrusion until they heard the reason. Both teams started cheering while Parfrey made a hasty exit to prepare to jump on a plane.
While medical school is on Parfrey’s radar post-rugby, he hopes to get to the 2023 World Cup in France first.
Medicine and rugby run in the family. His father Pat Parfrey, a renowned kidney specialist, is a former Irish international who coached Canada and now serves on Rugby Canada’s board and as its representative on the World Rugby Council.
Patrick’s mother, who died in 2015, was a radiologist.
Patrick is the youngest of four rugby-playing brothers. The other three all represented Canada at different age levels. Kevin earned one cap for Canada.
Patrick’s last match for Canada was against the All Blacks at the 2019 Rugby World Cup. He has only played a couple of club matches in Newfoundland since.
The return of MLR is good news for Canada coach Kingsley Jones, who estimates some 60 Canadians are involved.
“It’s a great thing for Canadian rugby and the league’s just getting better and better,” said Patrick Parfrey, who like Killebrew hopes Canadians will see a second franchise north of the border soon.
While the Arrows are filled with Canadian talent, there is also South American flair.
South American newcomers to the Arrows this season include Argentina’s Joaquin Tuculet, Manuel Montero, Gaston Cortes and Juan Cruz Gonzalez.
Local restrictions have prevented the team from getting much prep time in advance of the season, however.
New faces in the league include former England captain Chris Robshaw (San Diego) and Australian stars Adam Ashley-Cooper and Matt Giteau (L.A. Giltinis).
While Killebrew is happy to see such international names come on board, he stresses the league’s objective is to develop pro rugby talent in North America.
He sees the likes of Robshaw, Ashley-Cooper and Giteau serving as role models for young North American teammates, “really teaching them what it means to be a professional at the highest level.”
But he also knows they bring fans with them
Robshaw has 234,200 followers on Twitter and 155,000 on Instagram.
“We need to use that as a league and harness their power, harness their social media power to really help tell our story,” he said. “And who better to do.”
Killebrew expects more than half of his teams to be playing before some fans when the season kicks off.
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Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press