Thursday, April 01, 2021

Major League Rugby - Week 2 review by Mark Strange

Joeli Tikoisuva in action for NOLA Gold


Week two of Major League Rugby saw some more high-scoring games but the gap between some of the teams was a bit bigger than the week before. 

Just like in the opening weekend, RUNY were involved in the first game but, after their impressive win against the Legion last week, they were brought back down to earth at the Gold Mine by NOLA Gold 51-28. The first half was a fairly even affair as early on Ben Foden crossed the line untouched to bring the visitors to within three points following Jojo Tikosuiva’s early intercept try and Carl Meyer’s five points from his boot. 

Both sides lost men to the bin shortly after but a penalty try and one from Hanco Germishuys meant the Gold were up 24-7 after just 20 minutes. New York were not going to take this lying down and answered back with two tries of their own before the break to leave the half-time score at 27-21. 

The back-and-forth nature of the game continued into the second half as the two sides exchanged tries at 32-28. However, New York ran out of steam and it was the home side who would run away with the game in the end with three unanswered tries to rack up their half century and come away with their first win of the year after their opening weekend draw with Old Glory DC.

The men from the capital also have drawn one and won one after a narrow 30-23 success at home to Rugby ATL in a real game of two halves. DC changed their entire backline from the first week and it took them a while to gel, meaning the visitors had a 6-16 half time lead thanks largely to the only try of the half from scrum half Rowan Gouws as the two sides exchanged penalties for the rest of the first 40.

The second stanza saw the game flipped on its head as Old Glory talisman Danny Tusitala went back to scrum half having worn the number 10 jersey in the first half and his pace and sharpness had ATL on the back foot to deliver a try for No.8 Jamason Fa’anana-Schultz before one of his own to add to his double on opening day to give the home side a lead of 20-16. The third and, ultimately, decisive try came from Fijian second row Api Naikatini as Atlanta looked shell-shocked. As well as his try Tusitala added 15 further points with his boot meaning he contributed two thirds of his side’s points. The former Auckland and Samoa 7s man has quickly become one to watch in this year’s league. 

The visitor’s finally responded with a try of their own late on but the home side held out for a debut victory at their new home at Segra Field. The game was played on artificial turf with the football markings in white and the rugby markings in yellow. It made for a confusing watch at times for the viewer but if they can make it a fortress, Old Glory DC won’t care one bit. 

Arguably the most disappointed team on weekend two will be the Houston Sabercats who welcomed the New England Free Jacks to the Aveva Stadium. The Cats sprung a big result on the opening weekend beating the reigning-champion Seawolves but New England rolled into town and shut them out with a 0-32 drubbing. 

It was ominous from the start when the visitors’ driving maul put them over the line after just one minute but the unconverted score turned out to be the only points of the half. The Jacks kicked on in the second period, though and a big contributor to this was former Scotland full back Dougie Fife. He got on the end of a perfectly-weighted kick through from Poasa Waqanibau and dribbled the ball over the try line to touch down for a wonderful score. 

New England’s kicking out of hand was on show again as out half Harrison Boyle kicked cross-field for winger Mitch Wilson who offloaded to flanker Justin Johnson for another score and Houston were beaten by the boot again for a 0-19 deficit. The mercurial Fife rubbed salt in then home side’s wounds with his second of the day. With the Sabercats looking to at least get on the board, the ball was lost close to the New England line and Fife ran it almost the length of the field unchallenged to put the ribbon on a clinical performance from the visitors. A humbling defeat for Houston who were brought back down to earth with a rather substantial bump and a big ol’ bagel on the scoreboard. 

Utah improved to 2-0 and sent Toronto to 0-2 with a 39-24 victory at Zions Bank Stadium which will make plenty in the league sit up and take notice. For the first half hour it was German out half Hagen Schulte’s place-kicking that had the Warriors a nose in front and it was his kicking from hand that put his side in the perfect position to notch the first try of the game. A textbook lineout allowed hooker Samu Malolo to cross for a 13-3 lead. 

Utah dominated up front all day which laid the platform for their victory and it was another maul that got them their second try of the day, this time by back rower Lance Williams who scored and Schulte was accurate with the tee again for a 20-3 lead at the break. 

Straight after the restart, Malolo got his second of the game and at 27-3, the game was in danger of becoming a blowout. However, the Arrows, who had star signing Joaquin Tuculet making his debut, hit back with a couple of tries of their own, including one from Irish scrum half Jason Higgins which brought them back to within ten points but Utah were able to see the game out for win number two this season.

The Austin Gilgronis suffered heartbreak for the second week in a row as they fell to 0-2 after a late comeback from the San Diego Legion. After their loss in week one against RUNY, it would be fair to say that one of the tournament  favourites have not got off to the hottest of starts and they were 11-0 down going into the last 20 minutes. The scoreboard operator could have been forgiven for nodding off with the scores at 3-0 after 50 minutes before Austin out half Mack Mason woke him up with his second penalty before a rolling maul made it an 11 point advantage. 

Former Austin man Travis Larsen forced his way over on 62 minutes to reduce arrears to 11-7 before a mad series of plays resulted in the winning score with just under ten minutes remaining. Neither side seemed to want to keep the ball with various inexplicable kicks and offloads before San Diego got a handle on the ball thanks to an Austin overthrow. Scrum half Carlo de Nysschen eventually finished the move off with a dummy after receiving an offload and the final score was 11-14 in favour of the visitors. Zack Test’s men will be relieved to get their first win on the board but obvious improvements are required. Meanwhile, the Gilgronis will be hoping that lady luck shines on them soon.

In the marquee matchup of the weekend in Los Angeles there was a shocking result. The Giltinis sent out a resounding message to the rest of the league with a 57-26 victory over the Seattle Seawolves – they mean business. A week after their debut victory over New England, they proved it wasn’t a flash in the pan and have now scored 99 combined points this season.

Things started ominously for the visitors as the LA pack dominated early on and set the stage for what was to come. Early scores from hooker Mahe Vailanu and second row Luke White were followed by scrum half Harrison Goddard and Adam Ashley-Cooper got on the scoresheet for the second week running. The game was finished as a contest by half-time at 38-7 and by 50 minutes, the hosts had scored a point-a-minute and the deficit was as wide as 50-7.

Seattle did manage to claw some scores back through their driving maul which will give them a modicum of comfort and dignity but this will have been a stinging defeat for the boys from the Emerald City who would have been looking to lay down a marker against their upstart rivals. While this was a bitter pill to swallow for the back-to-back champions, the Giltinis have really flexed their muscles and look every bit a serious outfit.

Who would have thought that after week two, Seattle and Toronto – along with Austin – would have been winless? Or who would have thought that only the Giltinis and the surprise package Warriors would go two out of two? With 2019 semi-finalists San Diego Legion and RUNY off to a sputtering start too, it really shows that in MLR, perhaps more than any rugby competition in the world, anyone can beat anyone on any given day. The beauty of this league is that the only predictable thing is that it will be unpredictable.

Saturday 3rd April

New England Free Jacks v Utah Warriors – 21:30
Old Glory DC v Toronto Arrows – 22:00
Rugby ATL v San Diego Legion – Midnight
Austin Gilgronis v Houston Sabercats – 01:00 (Sunday)

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