Colton’s Corner: MLR Championship Series Featuring A Conversation with Dallen Stanford
Colton’s Corner will be a weekly feature on five topics from around MLR.
Legion Advance to First-Ever MLR Championship
“This is the final step on our mission. From the outset, we have worked to become a cornerstone of the San Diego community. It has been incredible to see how our fanbase has grown, and they pushed us over the try line with their vocal support today. We are incredibly privileged to have another opportunity to represent them with pride next Sunday.” – San Diego Legion head coach Rob Hoadley on his team’s mindset going into the Major League Rugby Championship.
I’ve tried extremely hard to put recency bias aside, but I feel comfortable in saying that I believe Sunday afternoon’s match between Rugby United New York and the San Diego Legion was the best Major League Rugby match in the two years that the league has existed. Given what was at stake, the manner that the match was played and how it ended, I can’t think of another match that comes close to bringing the excitement and drama that this one did. Whether you had a rooting interest in this match or not, you had to be on the edge of your seat as the Legion worked their way down the field in the final minutes of the match. The Legion have taken an ‘All Business’ approach to the season, and that’s the exact same mentality that they are bringing into the MLR Championship. Taking down the Seawolves will be no easy task, but the Legion have proved time and time again that they fight until the very end. Look at their 17-13 victory over the Houston SaberCats at home and the way they fought back into their 28-28 draw with the Glendale Raptors at Infinity Park. They’ve earned the right to play for the MLR Championship Shield.
Seattle’s Hot Start Paves Way to Back-to-Back MLR Championship Appearances
This match was a lot closer than it might have felt. That’s largely due to the fact that the defending champion Seawolves ripped off 23 points while holding the Arrows scoreless through the first 34 minutes of the match. Had the Arrows woken up a little earlier, it very well could’ve been them making the trip down to San Diego to take on the Legion on Sunday afternoon. In just 26 minutes of rugby, Toronto managed to reduce Seattle’s lead to just six points. The combination of some unlucky breaks and Seattle’s incredibly deep bench was just too much for the Arrows to overcome. Seattle looked like a team that had been there before. They’ve got a team built to play finals rugby and proved that they can weather the storm when the going gets rough. They are going to show up to Torero Stadium ready to play, and I am extremely excited to watch them compete for their second title in as many years.
“It was massive. We’ve gone from a completely amateur setup. The Ontario Blues have been set up for a long time and it was a really good organization and we had put a good program together. We kind of knew that if we were to put those same players in that professional environment, training every day, strength and conditioning, and give them that many games, we would get a lot better and we have. The excitement really has really grown, obviously in the area of Toronto, but through the whole country. It’s just fantastic. I am very proud of the guys.” – Toronto Arrows director of rugby Chris Silverthorn on what the season has meant to the Arrows and Canadian rugby as a whole.
With their performances on Sunday, both Rugby United New York and the Toronto Arrows made their mark on the MLR in their first season of competition. For both teams to make their MLR Championship Series debut in their first season speaks volumes about the level of professionalism that already exists in clubs all over North America. RUNY and Toronto deserve every bit of praise that they receive for their performances this weekend. It’s hard to read Silverthorn’s comments and not think of all the good that the MLR has done for North American rugby in just two short seasons.
Sam Malcolm, Toronto’s fly-half, got absolutely waxed three different times on Sunday afternoon and kept getting back up. His skip pass to Gaston Mieres helped kick start the Arrows 17-point run, and he accounted for six of those points with a perfect day in the kicking department. As a spectator, it just felt like things weren’t going their way. They did all they could to push through their slow start and unfortunate breaks but just weren’t able to seal the deal. Winning seven matches in a row is no fluke. The Arrows have shown how good they can be, and the experience that comes along with playing the defending champions on their home pitch in a semi-final match will go a long way moving forward.
RUNY was two minutes away from punching their ticket to the MLR Championship. Their dominant defense was on display for the entirety of the match. Every time a Legion attacker got his hands on the ball, he was met hard by a handful of RUNY defenders. RUNY played bully ball all day, and unfortunately for them, the match very literally came down to the bounce of a ball. While Sunday wasn’t their day, I have a feeling that they will be back in the mix in 2020.
I speak for myself as I write all of this. So many people work so hard to make Major League Rugby go. Players, coaches, referees, staff from both the team and league, fans, and many, many more people have done so much over the last two seasons to lay the foundation for this league. Carving out a space in the North American sports landscape with a sport that a lot of people are relatively unfamiliar with is a tough task, so to see people like the Prime Minister of Canada Justin Trudeau, the Mayor of Toronto John Tory and Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson acknowledge professional rugby in North America feels like a dream. To see the New Orleans Saints bring in NOLA Gold outside center Tristan Blewett in for a private workout based on what he did on the pitch this year is amazing. All of that recognition wouldn’t be possible if the product wasn’t good. The rugby has been competitive and entertaining, and it’s getting better every week. There is still so much work to be done, but to see even small gestures like this makes it seem like the hard work that everyone is putting in is beginning to pay off. I am incredibly excited for the MLR Championship and can’t wait to see what 2020 brings.
A Conversation with Dallen Stanford
Dallen is in Argentina calling the World Rugby Under 20 Championship in Argentina, but he carved out some time in his busy schedule to answer a few questions for me and I am grateful for that. After chatting with him after Week 4, I wanted to touch base with him again as the season wound down. Dallen has been nothing but kind with his time with me throughout the season, and I’m glad to be able to share some of his thoughts on the season thus far and what lies ahead for the MLR.
Has this season gone at all the way you predicted it to go?
What surprised me the most about the 2019 season was how close the competition was for the regular season. The fact that the top four sides had lost 3 to 5 matches each, and that 6 sides were in the running for the semifinals with two weeks remaining is a testament to the quality of the franchises.
What is one team that you’ve been impressed with as the season has
The Toronto Arrows at home were fantastic, and I am extremely excited about how this competition will also benefit rugby in Canada. New Orleans was the surprise team of 2019, and I expect to see them in the 2020 Championship Series.
Is there a team that you expected more out of this year?
Glendale delivered some of the most exciting rugby that I have announced this year, including their dramatic 34-33 last-second win over NOLA, and the 28-28 thriller against San Diego. Inconsistency cost them this year, but I know they will reload for a massive 2020.
Who would get your MVP vote this season?
One can only truly select the 2019 MVP after the Champions have been crowned. So many standout performances, some of my favorite are:
- Joe Pieterson, JP du Plessis, Paddy Ryan (San Diego Legion)
- Riekert Hattingh, Brad Tucker, JP Smith, Mat Turner, Brock Staller (Seattle Seawolves)
What do you think the transition to conferences will do for the MLR in 2020?
It’s important to develop those friendly rivalries with teams in your region, so playing home and away will further help develop those. Having less travel in the week of a match is vital for player welfare and a better on-field product. I also love the East v West playoff and that each team will still play every other side at least once in the regular season. The East coast will be interesting with all three new franchises playing in that region, hopefully, they will be as strong as the magnificent New York and Toronto were this season.
What should people expect out of the three teams set to join the competition next season?
The new franchises have witnessed two years of professional rugby, and what the other nine teams have accomplished on and off the field. I expect them to be very competitive, but more importantly, we now have three new regions in the US that showcase this wonderful sport of ours, reaching new fans and young kids who want to pick up a rugby ball and play like their heroes.
At the various World Rugby events that I commentate around the world, the most asked question I get is about Major League Rugby. Everyone is extremely curious and interested in its success, and the best part of my answer is that, “it’s such a quality product and it’s here to stay!”
Who do you have winning the MLR Championship?
This was written before the semifinals took place: My 2019 final prediction is San Diego Legion v Seattle Seawolves, with a new Champion to be crowned on June 16!
After watching this past weekend, I think San Diego struggled to create scoring opportunities against a brilliant defensive effort from New York, where Seattle have too many threats across the field. Looking back at the regular season: San Diego defeated Seattle 17-13 (home) and 28-22 (away), but this is finals rugby now and Seattle surprised the Glendale Raptors last year.
It should be another brilliant advert for rugby in America, and I know plenty of people from across the globe that will also be eagerly watching! I want to congratulate coaches Rob Hoadley (Legion) and Richie Walker (Seattle) on a fine season. Not only two of the best coaches I have ever met, but the nicest people as well.
Dallen Stanford is a World Rugby commentator, having played for the USA 7s Eagles from 2007-2009. He was in the booth this season for the Americas Rugby Championship, World Rugby u20 Championship, the HSBC Sevens World Series in Las Vegas, Vancouver, Singapore and Major League Rugby. Follow him @TheRugbyCorner on Instagram & Twitter.
What did you think about this week’s action? What did I miss? I would love to hear from any and all MLR fans as the season moves along. Feel free to shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org with any MLR related topic that might be on your mind. I’ll address any emails in the next week’s Colton’s Corner.
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