Thursday, March 25, 2021

Major League Rugby : Week 1 Review by Mark Strange

Paula Balekana scores for Houston

If week one of Major League Rugby was anything to go by, then buckle up your seatbelts because this season is going to be a wild one! A total of 333 points were scored over six games with highlights including Houston shocking defending champions Seattle 30-24 and NOLA and DC rounding off the weekend with a 26-26 draw on Sunday. 

RUNY avenged their 2019 semi-final loss against San Diego with a 29-36 victory in Las Vegas that was a wild, back-and-forth affair. The usual opening day jitters and rustiness was added to by strong winds and a basketball-style opening twenty minutes saw the visitors ahead 14-19, however Legion did go into the half time ahead 21-19.

Errors were the order of the day in the second half with misplays at both ends of the pitch leading to tries as the see-saw affair continued with New York holding a slim two-point lead heading into the latter stages thanks to Dylan Fawsitt’s try. It was a second from the Irish-born American hooker later on that sealed victory. It was the second score for the visitors off the maul as it shapes up to be a dangerous weapon for the men from Brooklyn this year. 

The LA Giltinis got off to a winning start to their MLR life as they came out on top of New England Free Jacks 42-27 although the Jacks were game throughout as they stood toe-to-toe with their glamorous opponents at the Memorial Coliseum. 

A quick-fire early double from Canadian wing DTH van der Merwe looked ominous for New England but they got back into it with a try of their own to make it 14-7. A third try for the hosts came before a flurry of yellow cards and a bit of how’s-your-father. One for LA and two for New England – both for illegal tackles – within ten minutes of each other meant it was hard to keep track of the numbers on the field. It was the visitors who finished the half the stronger though meaning it was just a four-point lead at the break for the Giltinis at 21-17. 

LA got their fourth try just after the break while New England hung on with a penalty of their own but were dealt a game-changing blow when Irish scrum half John Poland was given a red card for making contact with a player’s head with his boot in a ruck. A new law trialed in MLR this season meant they were only down to 14 men for 20 minutes before a replacement could come on but this 20 minutes saw LA cruise home with two more tries – one from Adam Ashley-Cooper - to kill off the valiant threat from the visitors. They did get the last say when they returned to 15 men but it wasn’t enough for them.

The ‘Battle of the Roommates’ in Atlanta saw Rugby ATL squeeze out Toronto in a comparably low-scoring affair 21-14. It was Atlanta’s much-vaunted defence that held off Toronto’s explosive attack but it didn’t look like it would go that way early on when the Arrows led 0-7 after just three minutes thanks to hooker Jack McRogers but ATL responded quickly before another Toronto score put them up 7-14. 

A long clearance kick into Toronto territory allowed the Atlanta forwards to exchange passes to get them within 5 metres and some patient close play saw them barge over and the conversion equaled the scores. ATL are another side with a dangerous rolling maul and they utilized it just before the break to edge ahead 21-14. The second half would have been enough to put a tear in the eye of both defence coaches as not another point was scored and Atlanta held on to notch a hard-earned victory over their new roomies.

The biggest shock of the day was the afore-mentioned win for the Sabercats over the Seawolves in Houston. The hosts, as ever, had former Ulster out half Sam Windsor to thank for keeping them in the game with early penalties after Seattle had scored an even-earlier try. A length-of-the-field breakaway effort from Houston’s Zach Pangelinan saw them take a lead before Seattle hit back with a second try to take a knife-edge half-time lead 13-14.
Seattle captain Reikert Hattingh dropped a pass when he was on-on-one with the full back which set up the Cats for another long range score when Windsor and Paul Balekana combined to retake the Houston lead 20-17. The reigning champions hit back with another seven-pointer to retake the lead at 20-24 but that would be their last lead of the day as some superb defence from Windsor saw him strip the ball off Seawolves’ centre George Barton and linked with Taylor Howden to put full back Matt Freyre over for a score which he converted to inch Houston ahead 27-24.

Another penalty increased the lead and despite Seattle’s attempts to sneak it at the death, the errors which were the story of their day cost them and the Sabercats held on for a big win which they hope will propel them onto greater things this year. The Seawolves will be hoping it was merely an aberration.

A dramatic finish in Austin saw the Utah Warriors just squeak over the finish line 30-28 against the Gilgronis in a game which they dominated for large parts. An early Sebastian de Chaves try for Austin was cancelled out and then some by two quick-fire tries from the hosts from scrum half Michael Baska and flanker Lance Williams giving them a 15-7 half time lead.

The second half is when things really started to get lively with the teams exchanging scores just after 50 minutes to make the score 22-14. A try for Utah’s South African No.8 Jurie van Vuuren extended their lead to 27-14 and it looked like it would be an easy home stretch for them but that was not the case and Austin hit back with another score and were a knock-on away from taking the lead but, instead a Warriors penalty saw their lead at 30-21.

Austin prop Paddy Ryan went over for a converted meat pie late on to leave Utah sweating and they must have been sweating bullets when a scrum penalty to Austin was awarded with the clock in the red and the tee was called for. The penalty just dropped short of the posts and you could almost hear the sigh of relief around Zions Bank Stadium.

The final game of the weekend on Sunday lived up to the previous day’s action as New Orleans and Old Glory DC shared 26 points each. This was also the opening fixture in the truncated 2020 season when NOLA blew DC away 46-13 so the visitors had revenge on their mind this time around and certainly gave a much better account of themselves.

It was NOLA’s ‘coffin corner’ lineout and maul that gave them an early 5-3 lead and they put severe pressure on the visitor’s defence but somehow it held out, including holding up two mauls over the goal line. DC did take the lead with a penalty which was followed by a much-needed hydration break after 20 minutes. It was much the same afterwards with New Orleans on the attack and the men from the capital keeping them out.

NOLA’s former-Australia 7s out half Robbie Coleman made a break but was stopped and turned over by DC full back Mike Dabulas who then went on to start a counter attack which was finished off by Danny Tusitala after great work from hooker Mikey Sosenei-Feagai for a 13-5 lead after 25 minutes. A sponge can only soak up so much, however and the Gold did get a try from scrum half Holden Yungert but another DC penalty meant they led 16-12 at the break.

After the break, Tusitala got his second of the game off the back of more great defence and, just like that, Old Glory led 23-12 but it was never a comfortable lead for them and they were soon pegged back by that old ‘coffin corner’. A funky line-out move saw full back Carl Meyer go over who converted himself to make it a four point ballgame. 

An Old Glory penalty extended their lead to 26-19 as they tried to cling on but yet another lineout move eventually led to a try in the corner for Argentinian Juan Capiello and Meyer’s ice cool conversion levelled proceedings at 26-26 which is how it finished despite late desperate attempts from both.

The old phrase: “a tie is like kissing your sister” springs to mind here as both teams looked disappointed at a share of the spoils after this bruising encounter but both will certainly have made the rest of the league sit up and take notice.

NOLA will welcome RUNY to the Gold Mine this weekend while Old Glory will host Rugby ATL in Virginia meaning a first loss will more-than-likely be dished out somewhere unless a second straight draw is on the cards for either of them. 

Meanwhile New England stay on the road and will look to bounce back at the Aveva Stadium against Houston who will be riding the crest of a wave after their big victory over the Seawolves. The Arrows are another side who will be looking to pick up a win against a victor from week one as they visit the Beehive state to take on the Warriors.

The only game featuring two losers from week one will be in Austin as the Legion visit the Gilgronis who will be christening their new home at Bold Stadium. These two will both have expected better than the narrow losses suffered on opening weekend so expect two sides going hell for leather to rectify that. 

Meanwhile, arguably the game of the weekend sees the Seawolves visit to the Memorial Coliseum to take on the Giltinis. It’s a matchup of the holders against the new big kid on the block and Seattle will be desperately looking to recover from their shock defeat in Houston at the weekend. While they looked as slick as predicted with ball in hand, the Free Jacks showed that LA can definitely be got at and Kees Lensing’s men certainly have the facilities to do just that. Beware a wounded animal! Round two is certainly shaping up to be another fun-filled, unpredictable weekend of rugby.

(all times Irish)

Saturday, March 27

NOLA Gold v RU New York - 8pm
 Old Glory DC v Rugby ATL - 9pm

Sunday, March 28

Houston Sabrecats v NE Free Jacks - 12am
Utah v Toronto - 2am

Monday, March 29

Austin Gilronis v San Diego Legion - 1am
LA Giltinis v Seattle Seawolves - 1:30am

Mark Strange (@realmarkstrange) : I am a freelance sports writer who has been published in soccer, rugby and baseball. I am also an avid fan of ice hockey and just returned last year from a year living and working in Vancouver. I previously played and was PRO for Randalstown Rugby Club before a knee injury cut me down in my prime! I became a Leinster fan when I was younger due to a certain Felipe Contempomi and I am the only blue in a sea of white in Ulster.


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Taken by JLP from RDS press box on Nov 16, 2019