Eliminator Round Preview
Written by Joe Harvey | Photo by Bryce France, GettyImages, Quinn Width
Prior to the Eliminator Round this weekend as Major League Rugby enters the playoffs, MLR Correspondent, Joe Harvey, spoke to some of the players involved as the journey to the Championship Final intensifies.
EASTERN ELIMINATOR | RUGBY NEW YORK @ RUGBY ATL | saturday, JUNE 11th @ 8:30PM ET
With the New England Free Jacks ending the regular season as the Eastern Conference leaders, Rugby ATL will host Rugby New York at Silverbacks Park in Atlanta, GA on Saturday evening.
Placing second in their division, ATL finished their regular season with a 45-19 win over NOLA Gold at home and will be hoping to pick up where they left off this weekend against New York.
Of course, it was last year that these two came up against each other in the playoffs, ATL winning the Eastern Conference Final 10-9 largely thanks to a late Alex Maughan try. Starting in that game last year was Austin White. Playing at full-back, the former Life University and USA Sevens Falcons player is looking forward to playing in front of a home crowd again to progress in the playoffs.
“I am excited,” he said. “We get to be here in Atlanta, be around our fans, hopefully be entertaining and be able to come away with a victory. It is exciting, just looking forward to it and getting all the prep done and doing our processes.
“I just think all the boys back each other. We try not to think too far outside of our group and try and think from within and just worry about what we can do and worry about the things that we can control on our end, and things go from there.”
Photo by Bryce France | Rugby ATL
What has allowed ATL to make the playoffs just 12 months from their last appearance in the playoffs is their consistency. There has been relatively little change to the playing group, the only major change being Stephen Brett’s promotion to head coach, while Blake Bradford was promoted to assistant head coach, after Scott Lawrence’ departure from the team. After playing each other twice already in 2022, the two teams enter evenly, their most recent encounter ending with ATL as 38-3 winners at JFK Stadium in Hoboken, New Jersey, while their game at Silverbacks Park saw New York return home as victors. Each team finished with 11-5 records, with just a point separating the two in the table, White and his teammates are just taking each game as it comes.
“The vibes are good on the team,” he said. “The boys are getting along, the boys are coming together, but we are really trying not to focus too far ahead and trying to take in each moment in each game into its own, because that is what it takes to get to the big one. Everyone is happy, we are just enjoying it and that is a big part of it too.
“It has been a good year; we have had our ups and downs and that is some of the best part of things. You have got to take your losses and grow from them, and to just come back together and move forward.
“It has been fun. The boys are getting around each other and I think we are going well, just taking it day by day.”
Scoring two tries in February as New York left Atlanta as 36-31 winners in February was Canada wing, Andrew Coe. The 26-year-old moved to the team after competing at the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo for his country, heading south of the Canadian border in search of a new challenge.
“I have loved every moment of it so far,” Coe said. “I have been trying to soak as much of it in as possible. To be in New York, which is the mecca of the world, where you can do anything that you want, and everything is within arm’s reach.
Photo by Adam Hunger/Getty Images | Rugby New York
“Being able to live in such an amazing city and play rugby has been amazing. I didn’t know what to expect out of it, but this has been one of my favorite years playing rugby.”
New York has made the playoffs each year since joining MLR in 2019. But at the third time of asking, the team will be looking to make it to the final stage, their hopes all beginning this weekend on the road in Georgia.
Coe will come up against some familiar faces in the form of international teammates Matt Heaton, Cole Davis and Conor Keys, even if his focus will be on the continuing growth of this New York team.
Coe says there is motivation aplenty coming into the game, with a strong sense to do it for those who have been with Head Coach Marty Veale since the beginning.
“I look at guys like Butch [Dylan Fawsitt] and Nate [Brakeley], guys who have been here for a few years and I really want to do it for them so they can see their progress throughout the years,” Coe said.
“I really want to do it for them so that we are continuing to build year on year. I feel like a lot of the first-year players are on board with that.
“We really want to do what we can so that the guys who have been around a long time can see their hard work pay off.
“We all took our own unique journey to get where we are, but we are all in on making the sacrifices to do what it takes to win the comp here.
“We work hard, but we also enjoy the process and each other’s company, and everyone is bought into the greater being of this team and that bonds us together.”
WESTERN ELIMINATOR | SAN DIEGO LEGION @ SEATTLE SEAWOLVES | Sunday, JUNE 12th @ 10PM ET
Confirming their place in the playoffs last weekend with a 35-27 win over the LA Giltinis, the Seattle Seawolves have now become the home side in the Western Eliminator following the incumbent champions disqualification from the postseason.
As a result of this late rejig, it is the Houston SaberCats that will be the highest seeded team in the West and will host the Western Conference Final in a week’s time.
San Diego Legion have joined the playoffs and will be on the road to the Seawolves in a repeat of the 2019 Championship Final in which the men from Washington ended as the victors.
It has been a roller coaster of events for the Seawolves, who were out of the race heading into the final weekend, the disqualification of the Austin Gilgronis which preceded that of the Giltinis, putting Seattle’s future very much in their own hands.
For Kellen Gordon, this season has been something of a swan song to conclude a career that has seen him lift two MLR trophies and serve Seattle Rugby Club with distinction, the same club he has served Director of Rugby for since 2021.
Last season, Gordon made just the one appearance for the Seawolves in their season opener against the Houston SaberCats. It was a game that Gordon wasn’t even due to play in that he was in Texas for the birth of his son before being called upon to play in the game. During that game, Gordon tore his pectoral tendon, leading to thoughts that his playing career had come to an end there and then.
“That was a season ending injury,” he said. “After having that injury, having three kids and the previous seasons, I was not having as much fun playing and thinking about fatherhood and all that stuff. I figured it was time to hang it up.
“Then I started playing with Seattle Rugby Club again, started enjoying myself again and then had a conversation with Clarkie [Allen Clarke, DoR], because I hadn’t really met him, and I was thinking this could be a fun season.
Photo by Quinn Width | Seattle Seawolves
“I look at this season as my last hurrah, not wanting to end on an injury as well. I decided to do one more and I wanted to be able to go all in. I have been a part of the league since the beginning, and I work a full-time job.
“This is the first season where work have told me to go for it, make every training and really be a part of it. It is pretty cool to be able to do that for my last season.”
Every time that the Seawolves have made the playoffs, it has ended successfully for the team. With two stars already on their jersey, with three games on the horizon, thoughts of lifting the Shield in late-June are at bay for now.
In the San Diego Legion, Seattle will be coming up against an opposition that described itself as not having lived up to their own expectations, their reprieve likely to motivate the side coming into this weekend’s game at the Starfire Sports Stadium.
In two games this season, Seattle have bettered their bitter rivals on each occasion. While the Seawolves have won those games, there was very little between the two sides, the 34-32 and 31-28 score lines testament to this.
In the case of Seattle, who haven’t made the playoffs since 2019, Gordon says that he and his teammates have a bond reminiscent of their efforts in their two championship seasons, perhaps giving them the edge going into Sunday’s game in Washington.
“I think we showed it this weekend, that we have guys that want to fight for each other and really care about putting on that jersey and working as a team,” Gordon said.
“I think that is the biggest part of it, that guys are willing to fight for the person next to them, and when you have that mentality, that changes games.
“That’s what built our seawall initially in year one, and that is what has been the difference from the 2020 and 2021 season from what I saw.
“I think this is a team that is willing to put their body on the line for the guy next to them and I think that’ll be the difference.”
HOW TO WATCH
Both the Eastern and Western Eliminator matchups are being nationally televised on FS2 in the US, and viewers outside of the US can watch on The Rugby Network.
HIGHLIGHTS | Houston vs Chicago
The Houston SaberCats snatch victory at death, stopping a second half Chicago
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