Conference Finals Preview
Written by Joe Harvey | Photo by Quinn Width, Big Shots Snapshots, Rugby New York, Justin Walker
Ahead of the Conference Finals this weekend, MLR Correspondent, Joe Harvey, spoke to a player on each team as they look to book a place in the Championship Final on June 25th.
WESTERN CONFERENCE FINAL | SEATTLE SEAWOLVES @ HOUSTON SABERCATS | SATURDAY, JUNE 18TH @ 7:00PM ET
The Seattle Seawolves progress to the Western Conference Final by virtue of their 43-19 win over the San Diego Legion in the Western Eliminator. Scoring one of his team’s four tries on Sunday night, Travis Larsen is just one of the Seattle’s players that will be making their way to Texas to take on the Houston SaberCats.
Travis joined the team ahead of the 2021 season after time spent with the Austin Elite [now Austin Gilgronis], San Diego Legion and Old Glory DC. Sunday’s game was played out in front of a sold out Starfire Stadium, a fact made all the more impressive when considering it was a six day turnaround following the news that the SaberCats would be the number one seed in the west following the disqualification of the Austin Gilgronis and LA Giltinis.
“We love playing at Starfire, it was a huge boost for us,” Larsen said. “Especially for some of those boys for who it would have been their last home game.
“They, more or less, had resigned to the fact that they were going to be playing for the last time at Starfire, so to get another crack at home was massive.
Photo by Quinn Width | Seattle Seawolves
“Being able to stay home, train on our own pitches, be with our families and all that kind of stuff was massive leading up to that.
“To run out in front of a sold-out crowd on six days’ notice was an incredible feeling. I know the boys were absolutely fizzing for the game and it showed with how we performed.”
Playing the SaberCats two times so far this season, it is a tie between the two teams as things stand. It was on the road in Seattle that Houston staked their claim for a postseason spot for the first time, Robbie Povey’s late penalty the second of two bonus points in the 43-36 loss.
Their last encounter was a similarly close encounter, the SaberCats winning that one 21-19, each of those games giving Larsen an idea of exactly what to expect when rolling into AVEVA Stadium this weekend.
“They are big, physical boys,” he said. “We are well aware of that, so I am sure there will be a lot of talk this week about matching them physically, especially as a forward pack.
“If we can match their forwards and dominate them up front, stop their mauls and get some scrum dominance and with the backline we have got, I am pretty sure they can let loose and score some tries like they did last night.”
A member of that physical pack Seattle will be coming up against is Aaron Mitchell. Like much of this Houston SaberCats squad, Mitchell joined the team during the offseason, bringing his four-year association with the San Diego Legion to a close.
Western Conference’s top two seeds will no doubt play out an incredibly intense game, Mitchell reminded of his battles with the two-time champions in years past.
“I think it showed type-A Seattle Seawolves Rugby,” Mitchell said when asked of the Seattle performance against San Diego. “They played a big seawall defense, when given penalties kicked to the corner and used their pack to show power.
“As a Legion player, I saw that all too many times. That is really what we are going to catch at the weekend, another really good upfront battle between the packs, and have the opportunity to show force.
Photo by Big Shots Snapshots | Houston SaberCats
“It is the people that give away less penalties and make less mistakes that are going to be able to make it to the next round.
“At this point it is not about points, it is about winning games and doing the things that you need to do to make the next game.”
Following the 2021 season, the SaberCats made wholesale changes after not making the playoffs at the fourth time of asking [if you include the 2020 season], bringing in former South Africa head coach, Heyneke Meyer, as Director of Rugby and a host of players.
An almost entirely new group, their team’s ambitions were clear. With their own purpose built rugby stadium, facilities to match and the acumen both on and off the field, Mitchell is massively looking forward to continuing achieving the objectives he and his teammates set out at the start of 2022.
“For the first time ever, the Houston SaberCats are holding a Western Conference Final at their home ground,” he said. “I think that is something special.
“Big games come down to getting the little things right. As long as we show up, as we have been doing week in and week out, and let the game be the game – because at the end of the day it there is going to be fans, a field, three officials, a field, a ball and two teams playing – and done let those emotions become too big, it is just another game.
“It is just another opportunity for us to go out and prove who we are as the Houston SaberCats and paint that picture on that day.”
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL | RUGBY NEW YORK @ NEW ENGLAND FREE JACKS | SUNDAY, JUNE 19TH @ 3:00PM ET
Kicking 14 points in Rugby New York’s 19-26 win over Rugby ATL in the Eastern Eliminator was Jason Emery.
Through just examining the 28-year-old’s exploits on the field across those 80 minutes embodying that of the team’s hard working and collective effort to progress to the Conference Final clash with the New England Free Jacks in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Cool, calm and collected, New York banished any demons of their 10-9 defeat to the same opposition a year ago in the Conference Final. As if the memories of this time 12 months ago weren’t already enough, Emery says that the 3-38 loss to last year’s runners-up in May was also motivation for Saturday night.
“There was a bit of nervous energy that whole day,” Emery said. “The last time we played them, they kind of beat us up at home, so we took it a bit personally.
Photo by Dustin Satloff with Getty Images | Rugby new York
“It was just a mindset to get one back and from one to 23 everyone was all in. We put it out there on the field, which was nice, and it was a tough game to play.
“We kind of got to 20 minutes in and thought we were probably better off not having the ball in the conditions and changed our game midway through. We were very happy at the end.
“It was just a really pleasing feeling after we got embarrassed at home by them last time. I guess you could call it a bit of revenge.
“I wasn’t here last year, but they talked about that before the game. It was a bit of revenge for the boys from last year and we wanted to get revenge on them for the last game we played them.”
Making a relatively short journey to play the Free Jacks this weekend, Emery and his teammates will be buoyed by the fact that after two losses at JFK Stadium in 2022, in the final week of the regular season New York went to Veterans Memorial Stadium and picked up a win against MLR’s number one seed.
Winning that game 14-21 Emery, who earned Māori All Blacks caps in his career, says there is plenty on the line for he and his teammates, who know that through beating New England they will bring the Championship Final to New York, even if the 28-year-old is keen to express that nothing has changed in their preparation for Sunday’s fixture.
“If you are not motivated by that, you’re not in it for the right reasons,” he said. “The games I have played against them this year have been pretty tight.
“We know they are going to be a different beast from what we played two weeks ago. We are just trying to get our prep right.
“Andy [Ellis, New York’s scrum-half] talked today about not doing anything special because it is the playoffs. We just go around our processes, keep building out and come Sunday at 15:00 we just go out there and play.
“If we have the right mindset, hopefully we’ll be on the right side of the scoreboard.”
Although that final round of the regular season loss was perhaps not the way the team wanted to end their 16 games, New England already knew they were the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Finishing with a 13-3 record the third-year team, who finished fourth in their division last season, have impressed many with their efforts this season. Winning 10 games in a row between March and May, it has been an impressive rise for the team, who won just one game in 2020 before the global pandemic brought a stop to their inaugural season.
Mitch Wilson, New England’s Australia-born wing, has been a part of the Free Jacks from the start. Joining from Life University, the back says to get to this point has been a slow building process for the side.
“I think it has been a building process from year one,” Wilson said. “There was a lot of lessons in that first year, in year two things were a lot better, but still with not having that first full year to reflect on, there were a lot of challenges.
“Being based in Quincy, our headquarters is five minutes away from Veterans Memorial [Stadium], having that base and everyone living close makes the environment a lot happier.
Photo by Justin Walker | New England Free Jacks
“It has been a three-year building process; I don’t think we just came in this year and things were just way better.
“Each year there are lessons learnt and management did an awesome job of adjusting, fixing those points of difficulty and it has really shown again on the field.”
Having flourished this season under his new head coach, Wilson has received a maiden callup to the USA Eagles for their summer Tests and Rugby World Cup Qualifiers against Chile.
Even with the excitement of a first international cap for the country he has lived in for the past 10 years on the horizon, Wilson’s focus is very much on the task at hand for he and his teammates in front of their home fans on Sunday afternoon as the top seed in MLR.
“The overall feeling is excitement,” Wilson said. “It is obviously the first time the organization has been to the playoffs, and we are going as number one seed.
“Coming off a loss to New York, I think everyone is pretty focused on getting back to work and not getting too far ahead of ourselves.
“We know to be expecting a big challenge. It is awesome to have this game in Quincy, a lot of people in the community have come out, a lot of people have been keeping up with us and I’ll bump into people saying, ‘you guys are 6-1’.
“As a group, we have just been chipping away one week at a time. I don’t think there is a sense of feeling like we are the best team in the competition.
“We are just happy we got the number one seed, and we are able to have this game in Quincy, get our fans out in numbers and sell Veterans out. We are really just excited.”
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