Tomás de la Vega, Toronto Arrow number 42; Fueled by Adversity
6’3” Tomás de la Vega is a unit. Not only is the flanker the Toronto Arrows' master of the lineout, collecting successfully with his big mitt, he’s fearless in the tackle, a massive ball carrier, a visionary in the line breaks, and a team leader both on and off the pitch.
The King of Consistency also often puts in the hard graft for the entire 80 minute shift.
De la Vega, from Buenos Aires, made 12 appearances for Argentina’s senior Pumas. He also spent time on their B team, Captaining the side on many occasions, including against Canada. He’s a popular player to have around, very dedicated to his craft, and gives 100% of himself.
The 2021 season is de la Vega’s second full season with the Toronto Arrows. He was just getting started when the 2020 season ended prematurely.
De la Vega ventured to Toronto in December of 2019 when Major League Rugby was still relatively new. Friend Uruguayan Leandro Leivas shared how great the Arrows organization is, and after an initial introduction to the MLR (New England Freejacks) had fallen through, Leo put de la Vega in touch with Mark Winokur.
De la Vega and his wife Dolores talked about the idea of moving to Toronto. As an employee of the multinational Labbatt Breweries, she could potentially transfer to the Toronto offices. With the notion approved by management and de la Vega’s negotiations with the Arrows successful, the couple was Canada bound. It was in part, a dream come true.
The de la Vegas had regularly attended a festival in Argentina called the Banff Festival, the Canadian Rockies being on Dolores’ bucket list. In the summer of 2020, they made the dream a reality, renting a camper van and traveling with Spencer Jones to Banff, Jasper, Canmore and other local areas.
Keen adventurers, the de la Vegas have made the most of their time living in Toronto, traveling around the province and enjoying what it has to offer, canoeing in Provincial Parks, and visiting small towns.
We’re glad he made the trip north. And we're happy to keep him here.
Yet, for the summer of 2021, there will likely be no adventures around Ontario for the couple.
The Toronto Arrows, as most are aware, are spending the 2021 season in Atlanta, having partnered with Rugby ATL, Atlanta’s home team to share facilities. It is a good – though not ideal – situation which allows Canada’s only team the opportunity to play week in and week out without worrying about COVID-19 restrictions, such as we are still grappling with north of the border.
It’s not a perfect solution. The organization could only take so many players and staff down to bubble. There were players left behind, and the team, while fairly well staffed, is missing certain members of those who toil behind-the-scenes, including president and co-owner Bill Webb.
For the first three weeks the boys were in a small hotel together, not ideal for anyone. It didn’t allow for proper nutrition, space for the players, or proper amenities. The Arrows are in a much better location now, complete with washing machines, special catering, and areas that are earmarked for the team.
While still not a replacement for home, it’s much preferable to what they started with. De la Vega says “Of course, it’s not the same as being in Canada, each of us in our own house. In terms of logistics, it’s a bit different, I think mainly for some of the boys. Sometimes you need to separate your workplace from your home, and being in the hotel with your teammates can sometimes be difficult. At the same time, it creates a sense of unity. It makes you stronger in adversity. So, I think we are doing pretty well.”
De la Vega explains that as he, Manuel Montero, and Joaquin Tuculet’s wives and children relocated to Atlanta to join their husbands, they’ve relocated to apartments in the same complex. The arrangement makes sense; while all the Arrows men left people behind here in Canada, those wives, girlfriends, and parents all have supports in place. Our South American contingent doesn’t have a close community in Toronto. In Atlanta, they can support one another.
Tomy’s wife Dolores is grateful to be in Atlanta with her husband. She’s also pleased that she's been able to help fullback Patrick Parfrey prepare his PhD transcripts. It helps keep her busy and helps Parfrey keep focused on his game.
Despite the divided living arrangements, the team remains close; the Argentinian players often act as hosts to 'hoteling' colleagues, something that de la Vega feels is the least they can do. Teammates often visit for a swim or barbeque, and De la Vega shares that they'll carry on the tradition as long as the team is in a bubble down in Georgia. De la Vega recognizes how difficult it is for his teammates living out of a hotel for months at a time.
DALLEN & ROBIN SPEAK TO TRUE RUGBY LEGENDS ON THE RUGBY HIVE PODCAST
At the same time, de la Vega is quick to point out the positives. They're missing home, but in general, the team feels fortunate to be able to train and play. The ability to get out for meals and enjoy each other’s company in a social setting is not lost on them. With Ontario extending their stay-at-home order until at least June 2, none of that would be possible for the Arrows had they stayed in Canada.
As their supporters look on through the lens of social media and broadcast, we see a much more open society than we’re living in at the moment. De la Vega agrees that it was a big adjustment the boys had to make. Crowds in the stands, some masked and others not, busy restaurants and streets; all of it has been an adjustment coming from the quiet and solitude of Toronto.
So, while changing living arrangements and lifestyles for six months is not without its difficulties, the team overall is feeling grateful for the opportunity. They’re also grateful to get vaccinated while in the USA – it offers a glimmer of hope that there might yet be the chance for the Toronto Arrows to play at home, even at the end of the season. While far from guaranteed and very much up in the air, having hope is something the team needs.
The struggle to find their footing at the start of the 2021 season was real.
After dropping the first two matches versus hosts ATL and then the Utah Warriors, the team started to put the pieces together when they played the LA Giltinis.
In that match, the Arrows fared well the first half against the league powerhouses until a yellow card was issued with one minute left before the break. After that, three successive tries by LA put them too far on the back foot. Still in all, the team felt overall that their play had shifted by their third outing; a more cohesive attack, smoother handoffs, better ability to read each other. As a team, de la Vega explains, they finally felt that their “preseason” was done. Unlike other MLR teams that got to play friendlies before the season launched in March, Toronto hit Georgia and within 9 days had already played two matches without the opportunity to have a full preseason training schedule, let alone full contact rugby.
For the South Americans it was an even bigger adjustment.
They arrived ready to train but had to quarantine for two weeks, making the most of small spaces to continue to prepare their bodies for the season. As de la Vega says, the eight of them basically “lost two weeks”. Once they got back with the team, they needed more time to adapt – they hadn’t been running, let alone hitting or tackling.
The result was that for the first two games, the Toronto Arrows were fifteen individual machines instead of the way they’re used to playing: as a single well-oiled machine.
“After the LA game we felt we were functioning much better as a team,” de la Vega says. “Our connections between the backs and the forwards, our defense, building our phases. So, in the last two games it felt like we were doing really well, that the team felt like a unit and felt connected. It was really motivating to us.” The games de la Vega refers to are April 17 v Seattle, when Toronto put out a 52-7 performance, followed a week later with a 53-12 thrashing against hosts New York, two matches that announced to the league that Toronto had finally arrived, and in fine fashion.
Universally felt throughout the league, de la Vega agrees that the LA Giltinis are three levels ahead of everyone else with the depth of squad that extends beyond the first XV. Yet he also feels that Toronto has true depth and given the opportunity could beat any other team in the MLR.
“The mindset we are trying to build is to say ‘ok we have all this adversity, things are not very simple for us off the field’ and then trying to turn that into motivation,” de la Vega says. They get to the training pitch and use the fact that theirs is not an easy situation to power through and to “play, to enjoy, to show how good we can be.” The Arrows are, by de la Vega’s own admission, “hungry and want to play.”
All MLR teams are dealing with travel issues this season, and the Arrows are no exception. The trip up to New York was a 12-hour ordeal, followed by a hotel fire alarm at 2 am and heavy rain compromising their morning practice. The team used these setbacks much the way they’re using all the adversity they face to motivate them. They are, as de la Vega succinctly puts it, “fueled by adversity” in their 2021 campaign, to “absorb all that adversity, to accept it, and not to use it to make excuses.”
Still, he’s quick to quip that he hopes there will be no more adversity for the team.
Adversity appeared to take a back seat on May 15 against Houston, where Toronto was victorious 19-10 after dropping two close matches. All season de la Vega has piqued the interest of the MLR, appearing on teams of the week and factoring strongly with positive statistics. In that last match, prior to a well-deserved bye week, de la Vega crossed the whitewash for a try.
There’s that incredible work rate again. De la Vega is always glad to contribute to get the W.
The camaraderie is good on the team, and Tomy and his fellow Pumas Manuel Montero, Gaston Cortes, and Joaquin Tuculet are very comfortable and at ease with their Toronto colleagues. He admits they sometimes fatigue trying hard to conduct themselves in English, occasionally needing a break and choosing to speak Spanish. It’ll often leads to a bit of good-natured fun with the other boys.
It’s a great group of players; a brotherhood. De la Vega is proud to be among them.
In spite of the very different 2021 setup for the Toronto Arrows, the other Argentinian boys were also glad to sign on with the team.
This includes fellow Argentinian Juan Cruz Gonzalez, who, while he made the trip to Toronto, did not get selected as part of the team to travel to Atlanta. He remains in Toronto training on his own, both staying with and doing a bit of work for Jamie Mackenzie, keeping himself busy and making himself ready in case he gets a midseason call-up.
De la Vega feels badly for Gonzalez, while also recognizing that not every one of the 37-member team could make the trip to Atlanta (30 players were selected to travel). He feels equally badly for all Arrows back at home doing what they can to stay in shape – just in case they’re needed.
Of his time spent in the international shirt, De la Vega remembers Captaining against Canada and Captain Lucas Rumball (captaining the Canadian side) in 2018. By this time, any aspirations of getting back to the Pumas A side had all but evaporated.
De la Vega was finishing his law degree when he was playing for Los Pumas, and put a great deal of pressure on himself to do it all and do it all well. He finally reached a point where he had to step back for a time. He took a break, then as luck would have it that’s when he required two shoulder surgeries.
After time away, and not getting any younger, de la Vega was eager to play for the second team in 2017 when they reached out. He put his hand up for the Pumas but was unsuccessful. He realized that approaching 30 years old the opportunity had passed and that there were a lot of great players ready to take up his position.
Still, de la Vega recognized that he had much to give the game. That’s when he started to look to Major League Rugby.
Will he spend the remainder of his MLR career in Toronto?
Currently, the de la Vega’s are seeking permanent residency so they can both work without visa concerns. Last year, Tomy’s visa was strictly to play for the Arrows, so when the season was cut short, he couldn’t work. As a real estate lawyer, de la Vega would like to be able to work on the off season.
Currently, the long-term plan is to eventually settle in Argentina near families and loved ones, though the couple isn’t entirely sure as yet. For the short term, they are happy to be in Canada. Admittedly, it’s difficult to plan in the current conditions, what with a global pandemic continuing.
De la Vega is happy playing for and with Toronto and will revisit his place within the MLR at the end of the 2021 campaign. For today, his mind is very much on this season and what he can do to help get the Arrows where they want and need to be.
For Tomy de la Vega and other South American players, the MLR has been a dream opportunity. It’s benefitted many players and their international unions as well.
And it’s been a great stop on the road of life.
Toronto Arrows supporters are grateful that de la Vega and his wife are enjoying spending their time on local – and distant – roads.
Karen L. Gasbarino, May, 2021
Rugby Hive Editor
Listen to the Rugby Hive Podcast and connect with us on all the socials: