Paul Ciulini – Toronto Lock on the Arrows’ Playoff Push
Written by Joe Harvey | Photos by Ang Tek
Last weekend at York Lions Stadium, the Toronto Arrows fell to a 41-17 loss at the hands of Rugby New York. Playing 60 minutes in that game, Paul Ciulini spoke to majorleague.rugby about how he and his teammates will be looking to bounce back from that performance.
“That is a really tough loss to swallow, especially coming off us playing them the last time where it went down to the wire [14-10 win for Toronto in Hoboken, New Jersey],” Ciulini said.
“I don’t think what happened really reflects us as a team. We just made little mistakes and they capitalized on it, and we didn’t adjust to it.
“Today at training, we definitely marked what we had to do to fix it, and the boys made those adjustments, and we got those titbits of clarity that can go forward into Dallas and hopefully have that score looking the other way for us.”
One thing to have come from the loss to New York is the importance of the Arrows’ final four regular season games. A win in each game will give Toronto the best chance of making the postseason, the team currently 11 points behind the East Conference’s third-place side, Rugby ATL.
This final run into the playoffs starts this weekend in Toronto in the nationally broadcast game, with the Dallas Jackals coming to town on the hunt for their first MLR win.
A week later, it will be Conference-leaders the New England Free Jacks coming north of the border, then a trip to Rugby ATL and closing out the regular season with a game against Old Glory DC.
Knowing the task at hand, Ciulini says the side hasn’t had the wind taken out of their sails following defeat to New York in their last outing.
“I don’t think it has dented anybody’s’ [confidence],” he said. “If anything, it has lit a bit of a fire under us. It is crunch time and I don’t think there is anything more dangerous than a dog with its back to the corner.
“I am raring for it; I know the other boys are raring for the chance to come away from the next four games with 20 points and solidify our place in the East Conference playoffs.”
When reading Ciulini’s player bio, it becomes clear how local the lock forward is. This is emphasized on the call, when a high school friend of his father’s calls to the 26-year-old from across the street, or even the revelation that he grew up just 15 minutes away from the Arrows’ home ground.
As things stand, Ciulini is likely to be the first Toronto player to reach 50 MLR caps, currently having 46 appearances under his belt, 42 of those coming as a starting player.
Like so many of his teammates, the Canada international came through the Ontario Blues program in the region, his passion for playing professional rugby clear for all to see.
“There are a lot of guys on the team that started with the Ontario Blues and were years and years in the making,” Ciulini said. “A lot of the guys take pride in it, especially me, because we have built up to where we are now.
“Now we have got a chance to be here and don’t want to squander it at all, and take everything we get going forward, because we were doing it for free and now we are getting paid and having a ton of fun with it.”
Playing in front of home fans this season for Toronto has also taken on a more special meaning. Having had to spend the entirety of the 2021 season in Atlanta, Georgia, as a result of the global pandemic.
Able to play in front of family and friends on an almost weekly basis between now and the end of the season, the crowd has the ability to help Peter Smith’s side push themselves to the next level.
“There is a different way it pumps you up,” Ciulini said. “When you are playing away with their fans, you want to shut them up and make the stands quiet.
“When you are home, you have that 16th man sitting right there cheering you on. I have got friends; I have got family and other people that come out to watch.
“There are even young kids that are coming out and aspiring to be that, and I guess it puts a bit of a weight on your shoulders to play your best game.”
GETTING BACK TO WINNING WAYS
With four games left to play, the task at hand for Toronto is simple. Through winning all four of their games, starting this weekend against Dallas, the side gives themselves the best possible chance of playing postseason rugby.
When asked the pillars he and his teammates will have to lean on in order to give themselves the best chance of success, the 26-year-old boils it down to the basics.
“Just bringing unrelenting physicality if the one thing I’d say we have to do,” Ciulini said. “We always get told that we are not the biggest team in MLR, but that doesn’t mean anything if you are just throwing shots, being physical and making sure a team walks off saying ‘I don’t want to play them again’.
“Another one would be looking to be clinically smart. Stuff happens and you mess up, but you have to make the right decisions when they count.”
In Dallas, Toronto are coming up against a side with nothing to lose and plenty to gain as their debut season in MLR begins to come to an end.
At the foot of the West Conference, the teams’ most recent outing saw them lose 74-7 at the hands of two-time champions, the Seattle Seawolves.
But for Ciulini and his teammates, who have lost their last two games, they are hoping to not only get back to winning ways to further stake their claim for a place in the postseason, but put a bit of pride back in the jersey.
“We are coming out of the last two games with them not going exactly the way we wanted,” Ciulini said.
“We definitely need this as a game to rally around each other and fix all these little mistakes we have made and get some confidence back, getting that mojo back up high, because those last two performances aren’t indicative of the team we are.
“This Saturday, we definitely want to show that we are, and can be, the team the fans deserve to come out and watch.”
- How do you contribute to your mental health on a daily basis?
It is a long season, and especially when you are traveling a lot, it is easy to get tired and let things slip.
It is just about making sure, for me at least, you are making your bed, putting the dishes away, proper shopping, proper eating habits, it is easy to let those things slip.
I think maintaining the basics and setting that status quo, then you always have something to fall back on and look at yourself and be proud about.
Even if it is a tiny little thing, it is crazy to think how things like that can snowball if you don’t take care of it.
- How do you define being “fit” both physically and mentally?
Physically fit is an easy one. It is not about your appearance, but your fitness in terms of running, your strength in terms of your workouts and lifting, but your mental fitness is definitely a tougher one.
Just understanding that not every day is going to go your way, to get stoic about things, you can’t change what happens to you, but you can change how you respond to those things.
So maybe if something goes wrong in a training session, you can let that fester inside of you and you could give the day up, or you can find a way to make it positive or into a learning opportunity or a learning experience and how to get better from there.
I think those little things really show who is mentally fit and who isn’t, because the brain is a muscle like anything else, so you have got to really work at making sure you are pushing yourself in that respect as well.
It is not an easy or a fun thing to do, and it definitely sucks at times, but I think in the long-term it makes you into a mentally stronger person.
- How important is mental clarity for you on game days?
What is the old saying? That sport is 95% in your brain, and the other 5% is execution. I definitely think that holds true.
You can be as fit as you want and as much of a big hitter, but if you don’t know your role and you don’t know what you are supposed to be doing or what the team is supposed to be doing, you can get lost and then it can be all for naught, and you are a bit of a show pony, so I think mental clarity is definitely an important thing and that comes back to what we spoke about before in being mentally tough, because it is east to let little things come in and degrade that clarity or fog you up if you had a bad week.
That always happens, but I guess going back to find little things that you can do to just calm yourself down and get that fog away from you so that you can execute your role on the weekend. It is a lot harder to do than it is to say.
Mental clarity is definitely one of the bigger things, especially when you have a 16-game season in 18 weeks, you can really get bogged down, so that is definitely a tough one to train, but it is definitely an important one to train.
- Do you find that physical activity and exercise helps you mentally?
Without a shadow of a doubt. Just coming off the covid year, you really saw what sitting around and being stagnant does. It kind of rots your brain.
Just getting around and moving, and it doesn’t have to be a ton, but getting out, being outside and doing what we were supposed to do as humans definitely helps clear your mind and gets you feeling good.
It may suck in the moment when you are blowing and cramping, but once you get into a routine and a habit, it sorts your brain out a bit and you get those good chemicals hitting you.
- How do you mentally overcome a tough loss or injury?
Knock on wood, I haven’t had any tough injuries and I hope not to. I think it would almost be the same as a loss. For me, you sort of say ‘this is the card I have been dealt, how can I turn it into a learning experience’.
It could be an injury due to a lack of mobility or being physically fit or strong enough, it is something you could work on to keep focused on instead of an injury. For a loss, you sometimes have to forget about it a little bit, take those learning opportunities, but it is a long season, a loss isn’t going to make or break it.
If you don’t make it a learning opportunity, then I guess it can get pretty tough and you can get pretty down on yourself.
No one likes losing, it is not a fun thing to do, so there is definitely emotions and I think finding a way to let it out with whatever outlet you have, as long it is a positive one, you should go and find that and clear yourself out, take a day or two, then go and look at film and talk about it at practice, looking at what you can and can’t fix, because I don’t think ruminating on it does any good either and just obsessing over the fact you lost, because you have to accept that it happened and to move forward to the next game.
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