MLR Championship Preview
Written by Joe Harvey | Photo by Brian Jackson
After two tightly contested games in the Conference Finals last weekend, it will be Rugby ATL and the LA Giltinis who will come toe to toe in their quest for the shield.
Taking place on Sunday afternoon, the MLR Championship Final sees the LA Giltinis having home advantage, the game being played at the LA Memorial Coliseum, ATL making their way to the west coast in order to battle it out for the immense glory of being MLR champions.
Having met once already this season, it was ATL who took home the victory, picking up a tightly contested 17-12 win at the Snake Pit. It is sure fire to be a hotly contested fixture and MLR Correspondent Joe Harvey heard from both teams.
Having torn his Anterior Cruciate Ligament against Utah in the penultimate game of the regular season, Jason Damm will not be able to take the field with his Rugby ATL teammates this weekend.
Instead, he and the rest of the non-playing group will be watching from the bleachers, Damm possibly crashing his crutches together in order to create a feel of home some 2,200 miles away from the familiarity of Georgia.
The bulky back-row was in the stands again on Saturday night as an Alex Maughan try secured the team’s place in the Final, Kurt Coleman’s conversion securing the 10-9 win in Georgia.
“It is huge for the city of Atlanta, to have a team in this final, it is a dream come true,” Damm said. “When I came to this team, playing for Scott Lawrence was a big appeal, and in our first year the season got called early, but we felt like we had a special team.
Photo by Karl Moore
“We finished the 2020 season with a 2-3 record and this season we started the season 2-3 again, so who knows what could have come in that first year. I am just so glad we got to play this season out and to show the resolve we have here by making it to the final.”
Throughout the game on Saturday, ATL piled the pressure onto Rugby United New York, their scores only coming when the visiting team simply has nothing left to give, the momentum making the home team’s score feel something of an inevitability.
In stark contrast to the Giltinis, there is a distinct lack of star power amongst Rugby ATL’s ranks. Yes, there are USA Eagles, Canadian internationals, as well as a dash of overseas talent, the vast majority of the team’s stars having flown under the radar for long periods of the season.
For Damm, that is perhaps what has helped the team bond the most, creating a brotherhood borne from hard work, the knowledge that even when one’s own muscles are screaming for oxygen, so are everyone else’s and you are going through that ordeal together.
“Playing for each other is huge for us as a team,” Damm said. “I think one of the great things about our team and our culture is that we are not a superstar team. You look through the roster, and we have players who have made the team of the week, but I wouldn’t say any one of us falls into that ‘superstar’ category.
“Across the board we have depth, that is one of our biggest strengths, which has shown throughout the season, and we have been able to finish games with guys injured or away for internationals, which might have been harder for other clubs.”
Ryan James’ second half cameo resulted in two tries for the 21-year-old, tries that secured his team a place in the MLR Championship Final in their inaugural season. His performance from the bench in the 17-13 win over the Utah Warriors also secured him a slot in the GEICO XV, as well as being the Player of the Week in the Conference Finals.
Originally due to play for the Dallas Jackals this season, it was only after the team decided to opt out of the 2021 season that James made his way back to his home state. Sate on the touchline for the majority of Sunday’s game, the 21-year-old says that his exploits on the right wing were unexpected even for him.
“Before I came on, the message was just to bring on some energy,” James said. “In my mind, that was just to be the hype man from the side lines, I wasn’t expecting to get the ball as much as I did.
“Just to be the hype man for the forwards, they had been doing a great job that whole match, having made huge improvements from the week before and I was just getting fired up watching them.
Photo by Brian Jackson
“It was definitely something special and not something you really expect to happen, but once it does, it is pure Nirvana.”
In some ways it is a case of third time’s the charm for James. In his career so far he was watched from the sidelines as two teams he has represented have lost the MLR final. A developmental player at the time, James was plying his trade with the Colorado Raptors in 2018, then San Diego Legion in 2019 as Seattle lifted the Shield on both occasions.
Heading back inland to represent Colorado in 2020 before the season was cut short, it has been under Darren Coleman that the back three player has flourished. Having had the immense experiences of Matt Giteau, Adam Ashley-Cooper and so many more to draw from, he has even caught the eye of Eagles coach Gary Gold, having been named in the preliminary squad to go on the tour of England and Ireland earlier this month.
With his family travelling from San Diego this weekend for the Final, James credits much of his recent growth to the senior players around him, many of whom he looked up to when stepping into the game.
“It is kind of indescribable,” James said. “You can dream about playing with people like this, but it is a different thing to actually have them in your life every day. You show up to work and you are playing outside of these greats, and you are just able to learn something from every situation.
“You get to lean on their experience, and from other position groups as well. You gain a better understanding and better appreciation of what the big guys are doing. As a back, I am learning thigs that I didn’t know at all.”
LA wing DTH van der Merwe already has two winners’ medals tucked away safely at home. They came while he was playing domestically overseas, the first won in 2015 with Glasgow, the Canada wing scoring a try in the 25th minute on the way to that Pro12 victory and the second came in 2017 with the Scarlets in the same competition.
To say the 35-year-old knows a thing or two about winning is putting things mildly. For all the star names amongst LA’s ranks, there aren’t as many trophies as one would think, making the team’s opportunity on Sunday all the more special for a group of players who all met for the first over Zoom some 12 months ago.
“I think winning any sort of trophy is amazing,” Van der Merwe said. “There is a lot of peple around the world that play sports or compete on a weekly basis, that never get to win something and I have tasted it twice, luckily, with Glasgow and Scarlets.
Photo by Brian Jackson
“I feel it is almost the right of my teammates to have that opportunity as well. I want them to feel that feeling and that is what I will be playing for, to give them that feeling of being a superhero. That will drive them in the future, to want to get to that place again.”
Having made the Team of the Week for his exploits last weekend, Van der Merwe clearly has plenty more to give to this LA team. Now nearly into his 15th year as a professional rugby player, it can’t be ignored that much of the Canadian’s career is behind him.
Now, motivations have changed. From being the young North American wanting to prove himself, first at Saracens before joining Glasgow and becoming the team’s all-time top try scorer, his main focus off the field is that of his family, that desire to leave his wife and three children with lasting memories a major driver for him.
“That is why I signed here, for that family adventure,” Van der Merwe said. “I wanted to be living and playing in LA with my family here, the kids enjoying the lifestyle that comes with LA.
“When I come off the field and I see my kids in the stands and they want to run on the field, there is no better feeling. Especially now they are at the age that they can really understand what is going on.
“Last week, I was telling them that it was either going to be my last game of the season or second last game of the season, then I might not be playing for another six months after that.
“You can see their minds ticking over and after the game, the first thing they said was, ‘there is one more gameday, Daddy!’. I play for my family, my kids, my wife and it is amazing to have them in the stands.”
HOW TO WATCH
Sunday’s game will kick-off at 4PM ET, with viewers in the US able to watch on CBS and viewers elsewhere can watch live on The Rugby Network.
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