San Diego Legion v New England Free Jacks – 2023 Championship Final Preview
Written by Joe Harvey
Since the 2023 Major League Rugby season began in Febuary, 12 teams have been battling it out for a chance to play in the Championship Final in Chicago.
After 20 weeks, the San Diego Legion and New England Free Jacks have advanced to the Final and have a shot at lifting the Shield this Saturday at SeatGeek Stadium.
Each side set the pace and became champions of their respective conferences last weekend. On Saturday, they can be crowned the MLR champion of North America.
Ahead of the match, MLR Correspondent Joe Harvey spoke to two New Zealanders who significantly influenced their teams in the 2023 season.
ONE GAME TO GO
Both Richard Judd and Mitch Jacobson arrived in MLR this season. Over the years, the pair had some across one another in the Bunnings NPC back home; both earned Super Rugby contracts and now will contest for a Shield.
Judd has been the heartbeat for San Diego Legion this campaign, the scrum-half setting the pace for the Southern Californians as they have unlocked opposition defenses with their expansive and dynamic attacking style of rugby.
At the time of speaking, it has scarcely been two days since the 31-year-old and his teammates were inspired to victory over the Seattle Seawolves at Snapdragon Stadium, to extend their season by another week.
“The Western Conference is a big milestone, but the job is not done yet,” Judd said. “There is that famous Kobe (Bryant) quote, ‘What’s there to be happy about? Job’s not finished.”
“Super stoked about the final. Like any other team, this was the goal we set in stone in our preseason. But to finally reach it is awesome.”
Jacobson has set the tone in his own way. An abrasive back-row forward, the 27-year-old has been at the center of the New England Free Jacks’ defensive efforts, which has often yielded such positive returns for the side.
Taking on Old Glory DC on Saturday evening, it was a dominant performance from the Free Jacks, who kept the visitors to Veterans Memorial Stadium to only one score.
It is a stark contrast to 12 months ago when New England was knocked out of the competition by the New York Ironworkers. Since then, the team has developed significantly from a dominant 2022 season and making the Championship Final for the first time.
Check out the match highlights.
— Major League Rugby (@usmlr) July 1, 2023
“It is something that this club has never done before,” Jacobson said. “We have come so far, and we want to go all the way.
“We have still got a job to do. That is the mindset around it. We are pretty confident. We have got the game plan, we have got the team to tip San Diego over.
“It is not going to be easy because they are a quality side, but we are really looking forward to it.
“In terms of the game we played against Old Glory, we got some real positives out of that. Our defense was quite outstanding, we missed a few opportunities on attack, but that’s what training is for, and hopefully, we refine a few things and get humming for Saturday.”
For San Diego, their arrival back into the MLR Championship is four years in the making. Beaten by Seattle in the 2019 final, the team has certainly ridden the highs and lows.
A 2020 season in which the team went five games unbeaten was washed away because of Covid-19, while in 2021 and 2022, the team was certainly present in conversations of contention but lacked that cutting edge to be truly defined as true challengers.
Under Danny Lee’s guidance, the Legion has become a genuine title contender. After their postseason was ended early by the Seawolves, the team regenerated over the summer and came into the 2023 season with an impressive roster and equally impressive coaching staff.
All Blacks legend Ma’a Nonu proved that his 41 years had not slowed him down, Faka’osi Pifeleti was resplendent in the front-row, Marcel Brache was a catalyst for the team’s quick scoring, and Mike Te’o was named player of the match.
— Major League Rugby (@usmlr) July 2, 2023
“It is a group that has come together from different parts of the world,” Judd said. “There is a core group that have been with San Diego Legion since day one, which is special.
“It is everyone building into everything that has been brought to the table. An awesome group of lads. It is a special group of guys.
“That culture we have built, everyone has bought into it as an awesome place to be. Also, I think we have done so well because of the competition and depth in our squad.
Photo by John Matthew Harrison
“The jersey is not given. It is earned. If you mess up, there is somebody right there to take it. The competition in the team is massive, and it keeps everybody on their toes.
“Whatever position you are playing, there is somebody to fill that spot if you miss a beat.”
Now with just one game left, there’s plenty of the line. Judd says only one thing is on his mind as he and his teammates prepare for the Championship Final.
“Lifting that Shield at the end of the 80 minutes would be the top of the list there,” Judd said. “It’s an awesome occasion, an awesome city, but the best thing to do would be to lift that Shield at the end of the day.”
FREE JACK DELIGHT
When Mitch Jacobson arrived in Quincy, Massachusetts, the Kiwi arrived hot on the heels of the Free Jacks’ fantastic 2022 campaign.
Scott Mathie was named Coach of the Year after his first season in New England, while Beaudein Waaka was Player of the Year, and the team set a new record for the longest winning streak in league history (10) – a record which has been bested by San Diego this year.
Having added the likes of Jacobson, Ben LeSage, Reece MacDonald, Jayson Potroz, Andrew Quattrin, and Conor Keys, this revitalized group have grown to be a far trickier proposition than last year.
Topping the Eastern Conference with a 14-2 record, it was clear that Mathie’s team meant business and will surely have confidence coming into a winner-takes-all clash.
Playing in a first-ever Championship Final, Jacobson believes that anything positive result will come in the areas in which the Free Jacks excel.
“We get a lot of mojo from our defense,” Jacobson said. “We have proven that when we defend really well. We are nice and physical, our game flows from there.
“We might not nail all our attack, but our defense definitely keeps us in the game, and we do really well off turnover attack.
“That comes from just pressuring them when they have got the ball, trying to create dominant tackles, forcing them into mistakes, and capitalizing on those errors.
“I think if we can put San Diego under a bit of pressure, they like to throw the ball around, start to squeeze them. It will go a long way to winning the game.”
Photo by Lisa Li Studios
One of the best-supported teams in MLR, it is unclear how many New England supporters will be flying into Chicago this weekend.
There will be a taste of home thanks to the Dropkick Murphys performing at SeatGeek Stadium, although the result on Saturday will depend on the team sticking to the process which has served them so well up to now.
“You want to be the best in the competition, and you want to have bragging rights at the end of the season.
“There is still a big group here from last year. They topped the table last year and were tipped off in the Conference Final.
“We have gone one better this year, but we don’t want to be the team that is tipped over in the final.”
“We have made the long journey here; we want to finish the job.
“Guys have traveled from all over the world to be here, and I don’t think you make the big trip and the sacrifice to trip at the final hurdle.”
DALLAS (August 20, 2023) – Major League Rugby (MLR) today announced a
The Professional Rugby Team Secures the AutoNation Sports Field at the Florida
For seven consecutive Fridays, NOLA Gold is making an event of every
Written by Joe Harvey | Photos Provided by Rick Rose Ricky Rose
Written by Joe Harvey Picked second overall in the 2023 Major League
- Chicago Hounds
- Dallas Jackals
- Houston SaberCats
- In the News
- League Announcements
- Miami Sharks
- MLR Collegiate Draft
- MLR News
- New England Free Jacks
- New York Ironworkers
- NOLA Gold
- Old Glory DC
- Press Releases
- Rugby ATL
- San Diego Legion
- Seattle Seawolves
- Team News
- Toronto Arrows
- Utah Warriors
- September 2023 (4)
- August 2023 (7)
- July 2023 (19)
- June 2023 (43)
- May 2023 (41)
- April 2023 (46)
- March 2023 (28)
- February 2023 (17)
- January 2023 (4)
- December 2022 (4)
- November 2022 (7)
- October 2022 (7)
- September 2022 (4)
- August 2022 (3)
- July 2022 (8)
- June 2022 (46)
- May 2022 (71)
- April 2022 (56)
- March 2022 (58)
- February 2022 (55)
- January 2022 (13)
- December 2021 (8)
- November 2021 (10)
- October 2021 (15)
- September 2021 (11)
- August 2021 (17)
- July 2021 (60)
- June 2021 (63)
- May 2021 (67)
- April 2021 (49)
- March 2021 (35)
- February 2021 (14)
- January 2021 (15)
- December 2020 (14)
- November 2020 (7)
- October 2020 (13)
- September 2020 (13)
- August 2020 (11)
- July 2020 (17)
- June 2020 (14)
- May 2020 (8)
- April 2020 (3)
- March 2020 (24)
- February 2020 (42)
- January 2020 (13)
- December 2019 (7)
- November 2019 (7)
- October 2019 (9)
- September 2019 (7)
- August 2019 (5)
- July 2019 (11)
- June 2019 (51)
- May 2019 (75)
- April 2019 (88)
- March 2019 (77)
- February 2019 (76)
- January 2019 (51)
- December 2018 (7)
- November 2018 (10)
- October 2018 (8)
- September 2018 (12)
- August 2018 (14)
- July 2018 (10)
- June 2018 (46)
- May 2018 (43)
- April 2018 (34)
- March 2018 (25)
- February 2018 (31)
- January 2018 (37)
- December 2017 (10)
- November 2017 (25)
- October 2017 (25)
- July 2017 (1)
- March 2017 (2)