Looking Back: Major League Rugby’s Second Year
Year two of Major League Rugby saw the introduction of two new teams as the Toronto Arrows and Rugby United New York became the first new additions to the League. Both East Coast teams quickly proved their worth in the competition, each of them qualifying for the postseason with impressive form.
New York’s season would start and finish with games against San Diego. In the first game, RUNY would fly back to their home city much the happier, beating San Diego 25-23 at their home, Torero Stadium.
Following consecutive bye-weeks, RUNY tasted victory again against NOLA, but it was against the inaugural years’ champions, Seattle, that the side would first experience a loss.
Traveling to Starfire Stadium in late February, RUNY would score three tries against their hosts, but would ultimately lose the game 21-33. Irish center, Will Leonard, scored his first try for the team that day in Washington.
Over the course of 2019, Will would prove himself as one of the League’s combative players, making 140 tackles across the 12 games he played and even carried the ball a staggering 109 times to keep his club on the front foot as much as possible.
Moving to New York at the end of 2018, Will was quickly submerged into life in New York. Living in Harlem with several other RUNY players, it would have been somewhat contrasting to life in his hometown of Limerick. The Irish city has a population of just over 90,000, whilst New York has a population of 18,804,000.
For Will, his standout memories from 2019 were the clashes against San Diego. “It was an extremely tight game, that first game,” Will said. “I feel with any year in sport, you take learnings from it, on and off the field. There was a huge amount of change and learning as we went.
“It was a tight game, that semi-final, it could have gone either way, but that is just the luck of the draw and that just goes to show how tight the League is. Seattle went on to beat San Diego by a score as well, so it is a huge testament to the League.
“The first game against San Diego would probably have to be my favorite, because there were so many things going on at the start….We were getting used to everything and we were coming up against San Diego, who had a pretty star-studded team. Then we won.
“It was against all odds. It kick-started our season, showing we were able to compete in the League and we were going to be up near the top of the table.”
Fellow newcomers Toronto would also find themselves playing knockout rugby at the conclusion of the regular season. Unlike RUNY, the Arrows’ debut match in MLR did not get off to a winning start.
Traveling to take on NOLA in their first match, the Canadians would fall short by just five points, a late penalty try and an unconverted Avery Oitomen score not enough to start their time as a professional team with a win.
Following a bye-week, Chris Silverthorn’s team would beat Austin in Texas before making their way to Seattle to take on the Seawolves. Much like in Louisiana, the losing margin would be five points, the team at one point winning 24-14, before a surge from Brock Staller and company.
All-MLR First Team lock for Toronto, Mike Sheppard, says the first year is remembered by the squad fondly, but believing they should have made it to the Championship Final in California.
Making it to the semi-final as the third seed, the Arrows would come up against Seattle for a third time that season and experienced defeat once more in Washington.
“I was surprised that we didn’t make it to the final,” Mike said. “That was my only take away (from 2019). We had a great, great team and we had a great team againt this year. The first time we played Seattle in Seattle, it was a great game, a shoot-out and then when they came to Toronto, we dominated them.
“When we went back there for the semi-final, their crowd was a lot more into it. You could tell they were a lot more prepared and they came at us with things we weren’t prepared for. It was full credit to them, they deserved it, I was just more disappointed in the performance and that we weren’t ready for that challenge.”
Playing at two venues in their debut season, Toronto drew in strong crowds to each of their home games. In 2020, the Arrows were unable to play a game at home, meaning that by the time the 2021 season comes, Toronto will not have played in front of their home fans for nearly two years.
Passionate and exuberant about their team, Mike believes that running out at a home game was perhaps one of his highlights of the first year, alongside introducing new players to the city and embedding them into their new rugby community.
“It was fantastic,” Mike said. “In 2020 we ended up playing all of our games away, but we were waiting for the chance to get a home game. Last year, our first game at home was against NOLA, the same team we had played at the start of the season. We packed the house out.
“It was so much fun running out in front of a home crowd, especially a sold-out home crowd. People know your name, they chant, they cheer. They do everything for you. They support you when you lose and even more when you win. The people of Toronto are great sports fans.”
While it was two of the new teams in MLR making an impact on the field and making up half of the top four, 2019 would see familiar faces hoisting the Shield above their heads. Seattle hardly missed a beat in the second year, losing on four occasions during the regular season.
As Seattle repeated history in MLR’s second season, one new player stood out amongst the Seawolves squad. Arriving from New Zealand in the offseason, Brad Tucker took MLR into his stride, scoring seven tries and ending the season with a 96% tackle percentage.
Statistics only told part of the story. Quickly Brad became an integral part of Seattle’s machine, adding to what was already a strong squad. At the season’s close, Tucker was named the MLR Player of the Year and made the All-MLR First Team. His last action of the year was scoring the try that would hand Seattle back-to-back MLR Championship titles.
“Every player on our team really stood up to bring that Championship shield home to Seattle,” Brad said. “Those guys that were with Seattle before and came back, we were able to build off their momentum. They recruited well and I think the guys coming in turned a strong squad into a stronger squad.
“We were a bit slow getting started, but we gained some momentum throughout the season. The guys only had one thing in mind, and it was defending a title. We have now created quite the rivalry with San Diego, so it was awesome to not only play them in the Final but upset them in a way.
“Now going forward, we are well aware that we are the team with a big target on our back.”
The final in California epitomized the 2019 season. It was as much a game of chess as it was a sprint to the finish line, Brad’s maul try, scored while the clock was in the red, the hair’s width between the two sides, that almost implausible and breathtaking checkmate. Played in front of 6000 people, more than double the previous year at the same venue.
Major League Rugby was growing.
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