MLR Conference Finals Preview
Written by Joe Harvey | Photo by Karl Moore
With the Championship Series getting underway on Saturday, Major League Rugby Correspondent Joe Harvey has spoken to players on all four teams ahead of their Conference Finals games this weekend.
It is sure to be a weekend of high intensity action, and you can learn more about the Championship Series by clicking here. Since the time of writing this article, MLR has also introduced a Television Match Official (TMO) for the Championship Series, adding even more to what should be a scintillating conclusion of the 2021 season.
RUGBY UNITED NEW YORK @ RUGBY ATL | EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALS | SATURDAY, JULY 24TH @ 8PM ET
Rugby United New York were the final team to secure their spot in the Conference Finals this weekend.
Despite losing 32-35 at the hands of Nate Osbourne’s NOLA Gold last weekend, New York would have had to lose by 20 or more points and give up a try scoring bonus point for NOLA to steal a spot in the knockout stages of MLR for the first time.
Instead, it was New York who took their place in the postseason and will be facing a stern test at the hands of Rugby ATL on Saturday night.
The team’s Hooker, Dylan Fawsitt, is no stranger to playing knockout rugby, having been a part of the New York team that reached the semifinals in 2019, only to be sent home by the San Diego Legion, and losing in the 2018 Championship Final to the Seattle Seawolves.
With those disappointments in mind, Fawsitt hopes that having failed to overcome two previous hurdles, it will be a case of third time’s the charm this weekend.
“This team has been to a semi-final and lost before,” Fawsitt told majorleague.rugby. “There are a good few of us that know the heartbreak (of losing in the playoffs), so we will definitely use that to fuel us this weekend.
Photo by Peter Marney
“Of course, I lost the Final with Glendale in the first year as well, so I know what that is like, and I have definitely learnt from those two experiences, so really looking forward to this weekend.
“It is redemption time and there is an opportunity now to get where we want to be.”
Arriving in the USA from Ireland in 2014, going to play Atlanta will be like going home for the Eagle. Studying at Life University, Fawsitt played plenty of rugby under Rugby ATL’s General Manager, Scott Lawrence, representing the college’s men’s team, while also coaching the collegiate side.
With the likes of Andy Ellis, Ben Foden, Nate Brakeley, Nick Civetta and Luke Hume amongst their ranks, there is plenty of knowhow in this New York team. As the year has gone on, the team has grown and grown to the point of being contenders in the playoffs, beating ATL on two occasions in the regular season, giving them plenty of confidence going into this game.
In some ways, their place in the Eastern Conference Finals did not seem likely just before the 2021 season got underway, with Greg McWilliams stepping down as Head Coach due to personal reasons.
Winning 10 games this season, Fawsitt says he is ‘proud’ of the team he leads on a weekly basis as captain.
“We don’t look behind us,” Fawsitt said. “We are just looking at the next result and that has been our strategy the whole year. Our goal was to get to the playoffs, but now we can’t dwell on that because that job is done, and the next job is to succeed this weekend.
“It is quite an attritional league, so you don’t worry about anyone else because you might miss a beat, so I am very proud of my team and how we have conducted ourselves. We have grown exponentially. It has been such a rollercoaster, but it has been one hell of a ride.
“I am telling you right now, we don’t want this to be over. We are coming this weekend and we are really looking forward to it.”
Playing for Rugby ATL this weekend will be Robbie Petzer. The 25-year-old South African is no stranger to MLR, having represented the former Colorado Raptors in 2019 and 2020, as well as having plenty of experience with the Griffons, Free State Cheetahs and SWD Eagles in his homeland.
More than aware of his team’s losing record this season against New York, Petzer says that he and his colleagues in black, grey and red are more than happy being the underdogs in this tie between two Eastern powerhouses.
“It is a bit different, because if you lose you are out,” Petzer said. “You will be going home and the other team has the joy of playing in the Final. We are not a team that is looking too far ahead. We are not worrying about the Final now, we are worrying about the job at hand first.
Photo by Karl Moore
“Obviously, there is a lot of emotion because we lost to them in our previous two games and they are definitely a team that gets under our skin quite a lot. So, coming into this week we are quite cool-minded and will play as if it is another game to win.
“You take a lot of learnings from the games you lose, but we don’t really care about it that much because we go out there to win every game. Every match we go into, we are the underdogs and we kind of like it that way because I don’t think teams expect much of us. It is all good with us if we are estimated going into this game.”
Having flown under the radar for much of the season, Rugby ATL have gone about their business without superstars in their ranks and have set themselves up with an opportunity to reach the Championship Final a week on Sunday.
With their ferocious home crowd backing them up at the Snake Pit on Saturday, Petzer says that it is his teammates’ respect for one another that pushes them to strive for greatness on a day to day basis.
“It is just hard work, and we work hard for each other,” Petzer said. “Synergy is a work that comes to mind, with a lot of different people coming together to achieve one goal. We have a big squad, and we have two teams within that group, so for the coaches picking the team, it is hard for them.
“Everyone in that squad works so hard for each other and we know, even if you are not playing, you are preparing the other guys for the game.”
UTAH WARRIORS @ LA GILTINIS | WESTERN CONFERENCE FINALS | SUNDAY, JULY 25TH @ 6PM ET
Despite having lost on the road in Utah last weekend, the LA Giltinis have every right to be confident heading into this weekend’s clash with the Utah Warriors at the LA Coliseum. Resting several of their key players to finish the regular season at the Zions Bank Stadium, LA were the latest team to experience a late Warriors resurgence that saw the home team walk away with a 34-29 victory.
Watching that game from the west coast, former London Irish and Melbourne Rebels center Billy Meakes got a clearer idea of what challenge lies ahead of him on Sunday evening.
“Obviously it was a disappointing result in the end,” the Australian said. “But, there were lots of positives to take from it and I think above all it gave us a really good look at what Utah are going to bring.
Photo by Brian Jackson
“They have threats across the park, they can shift the ball wide and they have got some dangerous individuals. It is knockout footy now, so anything can happen. A lot of us are itching to get back out there, some guys have had the week off and are feeling super fresh and energized to play Utah, again, back-to-back. How good?”
Amongst the players rested there were Australians Matt Giteau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Dave Dennis, Harrison Goddard and Angus Cottrell, as well as the likes of DTH van der Merwe, Adam Ashe, Sean McNulty and Luke Carty, who will all be back into contention for this game of winner takes all rugby.
Losing just four times this season, if they come out victorious on Sunday, Darren Coleman’s side will host the Championship game on Sunday, August 1st. Adding to the already extremely high motivation that is in the Giltinis camp, the opportunity to lift the Shield on home soil is a huge motivator for Meakes and his teammates.
The new kids on the block, LA took the Western Conference by storm this season, ending the regular season with a positive points difference of 240. Their loss last weekend was the first time they have fallen short against opposition from the Western Conference, and Meakes for one is keen to end the season with a flourish.
“It has been a whirlwind year, everyone on our team has made sacrifices to get where we are right now,” Meakes said. “It seems like ages ago we were sitting in Maui and talking about what the season will look like and what we wanted to do.
“Now it is in our hands, and we have got to a position where we can win this thing, so it would be pretty amazing. A lot of us haven’t really won big titles before, so it is a first opportunity for the Giltinis to make the Finals and then, for the boys to win their first Championship in a professional competition, there is a lot on the line.
“Excitement is probably the overriding emotion at the moment, I am just pumped to see how it all plays out.”
Making the trip from Utah this weekend, Utah Warriors’ Michael Baska started at scrum-half last weekend as his team consigned the Giltinis to their fourth defeat of the season. His first game for Utah since getting back from Eagles duty in England and Ireland, the 26-year-old has excelled in Salt Lake City in 2021, along with so many of his teammates.
Having experienced a positive result against their Western Conference Finals Rivals so recently, Baska says that the recent win could be extremely beneficial to him and his teammates in their preparations for Sunday evening.
“After all of us USA and Canada players being away, we had not played together for nearly a month, it was good that we managed to get some continuity,” Baska explained. “We wanted to make sure that we got a bit of continuity and a win going into this weekend.
“We understand that it is going to be a much different side, especially within their backs, but one of our focusses going into this weekend is pretty much defense, defense, defense. We have a pretty lethal attack; we just need to sharpen up a few things on our defensive side and we should be in for a good match.”
Having been in Utah since long before the team’s preseason began, Baska has been away from his wife and home in Paris since January, all with the aim of hoisting the Shield above his head in August.
Of course, Baska is not alone in making sacrifices in the name of glory. Many of Utah’s players mix a full-time job along with their rugby commitments, their efforts being repaid with a place in the playoffs.
“This year I feel like there has been a real sense of resilience,” Baska said. “We have guys that are working nine to five jobs and then coming to practice from 17:30 to 22:30. The guys have to put their heads together and get to work. We have all just bound together and embraced the fact that we are all just hard workers and never give up.
Photo by Davey Wilson
“We are just going to go until the final whistle and we have created a culture where we are going to carry on going until the very end. That starts from us working all throughout the day, turning around and then coming to practice.
“We have all really brought in and know that everyone is working their tails off and no one is giving up and it is pretty impressive to see. Especially guys who go and lay concrete from five o’clock in the morning to five o’clock in the afternoon and then come to practice, so there is just that sense of resilience.”
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