Week One Recap
New York Defeats San Diego 36-29 in Battle of Contenders
MLR’s first match of 2021 was also one of its most highly-anticipated. In a budding east-west rivalry, RUNY notched its first win in three chances after two narrow losses that included the 2019 semifinal.
The 36-29 scoreline kept things exciting throughout, though all players and coaches involved in this one would likely agree it was a sloppy affair. The long layoff, short preseason, gusting winds, or perhaps a mix of all three contributed to missed passes, wide kicks, and blown lineouts throughout this one.
It took only four minutes for San Diego’s big and talented forward pack to put the first points of the MLR season on the board. A punishing run off the lineout from flanker Psalm Wooching opened things up for lock CC Mahoni to dot down. Inside center Dylan Audsley powered through the wind to convert and make it 7-0 San Diego. RUNY struck back off a lineout of its own deep in Legion territory with New York’s rolling maul proving as dangerous as ever. With fly half Dan Hollinshead’s conversion, the match was knotted up at 7-7, seven minutes in.
Wooching made his presence felt again moments later as he capitalized after a break from his flanker mate Keni Nasoqeqe to put the Legion up 14-7. But RUNY was right back at it as new #9 Andy Ellis set up outside center Fa’asiu Fuatai before his partner-in-center-crime Will Leonard gave RUNY its first lead, 19-14 twenty-one minutes in.
Things settled from there a bit as the defenses bucked up to stem the flow of scoring. At 34’, a pick off the back of the ruck deep in RUNY territory put Nasoqeqe across the line and the successful conversion made it 21-19. That score held going into the halftime break as neither team blinked to yield momentum to the other.
Audsley was good from the boot again to open the second half scoring eight minutes into the stand, but RUNY would tie things up once with Leonard’s second try. A seemingly easy conversion was blown wide right and things remained knotted up at 24. RUNY kept the pressure on with a stab through the defense from #15 Ben Foden that created a misplay by San Diego and a New York scrum in attacking territory.
Dylan “The Butcher” Fawsitt scored shortly thereafter, but then it was RUNY’s turn to mishandle deep in its own territory. Wing Ryan Matyas capitalized for the Legion, and it was 31-29 entering the final frame. Fawsitt, the try-scoring hooker, notched his second at the back of the intimidating RUNY maul to put his team up a converted try entering the final moments.
San Diego would threaten into stoppage time, but the RUNY defense held to start the season 1-0 and snap a Legion five-game win streak that began a year ago.
LA Giltinis Win Debut Match vs. New England Free Jacks
The LA Giltinis played host to the New England Free Jacks in its debut match at the LA Coliseum, which stood as empty as it did imposing due to the continued ban on sports attendance in the state of California. The empty stadium did not deter LA from lighting the fireworks and putting on a show, however.
The home team put the pressure on from the kickoff and found itself attacking on a lineout deep in New England territory four minutes in. LA patiently went through the phases, left to right, before legendary Canadian wing DTH Van der Merwe dotted down the first points in franchise history. Australian star Matt Giteau notched the conversion to make it 7-0. Van der Merwe needed only only a few more moments to score his second. This time LA attacked right to left off the lineout to make it 14-0 early.
New England had a busy offseason in its own right and would not go quietly. It was the visitors’ turn to attack off the lineout and #7 Joe Johnston hit the reply-all button moments later after some well-designed movement to cut the gap in half, 14-7. LA’s fast and furious attack struck again as the forwards got into the mix via flanker Angus Cottrell’s try. Giteau struck it pure for a third time and the combatants headed into the first hydration break with the home team up 21-7.
Tempers flared as LA #7 Christian Poidevin earned a yellow card to set up Free Jacks’ captain Beaudin Waaka for a penalty kick that cut the gap to 21-10. A tip tackle moments later from New England’s #12 Aleki Morris-Lome on Adam-Asley Cooper evened the sin bin count and caused a bit of a fracas as the teams got to know each other quite well on this opening Saturday.
New England wing Mitchell Wilson committed another illegal tackle just four minutes later with a flip of LA center Billy Meakes to make it three players in the bin. New England weathered the storm however, and actually closed the margin with a much-needed try. Morris-Lome atoned for his sins via an assist to Waaka, and the former All Blacks’ flyer converted his own to make it 21-17 heading into halftime.
LA hooker Mahe Vailanu opened the scoring with a try moments into the second half, but New Englad struck right back with a penalty kick to keep things close, 28-20. The Free Jacks were dealt a crushing blow at 51’ when #9 John Poland was dealt a red card for kicking an LA player in the head. Though it looked like incidental contact on an aggressive contest in the ruck, the call remained and New England was down a man for 20 minutes — a rule new to the MLR instead of playing the rest of the match with 14 men.
That proved more than enough of an advantage for LA as Ashley-Cooper opened things up with a try, followed by reserve Pago Haini to make it 42-20. New England fought gamely to the end, and with a 15th man back on closed the gap to 42-27 for the game’s final score.
Rugby ATL’s Defense Holds vs. Toronto Arrows
Move the coffee table and keep the beer fridge safe. This “Battle of the Roommates” was an intense affair indeed. Rugby ATL has played host to Toronto this season to keep the Arrows in the United States for 2021 amidst the pandemic, and the familiarity between the two squads was on full display.
ATL built a reputation as one of MLR’s best defensive teams a year ago. Toronto’s explosive offense produced the league’s best point differential and a 4-1 record at the shutdown. It looked like the Arrows’ attack might take the edge in this one, as it scored just three minutes in. Hooker Jack McRogers knifed through the ATL defense to score on debut, and it was 7-0 early.
ATL responded four minutes later before big Argentinian flanker Tommy de la Vega scored to put his squad back up, 14-7. A huge clearance kick put ATL in Toronto territory to set up a break from ATL’s #5 Johan Momsen. His offload to former Colorado Raptors’ flanker Connor Cook had the home team knocking on the door inside the 5 meter line. Some patient, sustained picks were ultimately rewarded when Momsen finished the opportunity his break created. The conversion from #12 Bautista Ezcurra knotted things up with eighteen to go in the first half.
That score held until just before the break when ATL’s rolling maul delivered the lead and the momentum. It looked like it would be a high-scoring affair after 40 minutes, but both defenses stood up in the second half.
ATL came into the match with well-earned pride in its defense. It answered the bell time and again as Toronto threatened throughout the second half, but was knocked backward each time. When the final whistle blew it was ATL that hit the locker room with a 21-14 victory.
Houston Sabercats Upset Champion Seattle Seawolves
Saturday’s lone nationally-televised game proved to be the MLR Match of the Week. Houston notched an impressive upset victory over the two-time champion Seawolves.
It looked like Seattle would continue its winning ways as it took advantage of some early Houston penalties that resulted in an opening try from lock Les Soloai. Sabercats’ #10 Sam Windsor made his first mark on this game with a penalty kick, then followed with another to make it 7-6.
The Seawolves made a strong bid to take control of this match when big outside center Ross Neal made a break and found promising rookie Aaron Matthews. Matthews was without support however, and Houston wing Zach Pangelinan picked up the loose ball to take it the length of the field and give his squad its first lead, 13-6. Seattle answered right back and this one was as close as it gets heading into the halftime break, 14-13.
Seattle again tried to take control after an early second-half Houston penalty. Player-coach Matt Turner executed with the kick to make it 17-13.
The Seawolves had an opportunity to extend the lead as Turner found the normally sure-handed Riekert Hattingh with only the fullback to beat, but the hard-running eight man dropped the ball to squander the chance. Houston took advantage as Windsor found #14 Paul Balekana on a well-designed play. Now it was the Sabercats back on top 20-17.
Turner came right back and again found Matthews, who this time cut in and found the support. Neal took the next-phase ball into the try zone and just like that it was Seattle back up 24-20.
As strategic subs came in, Houston’s big front row depth paid dividends as it began to win the day come scrum time. The pressure created an opportunity for Windsor to close the gap with what looked to be a gimme penalty kick, but the almost-automatic fly half missed this one and it was still 24-20 with 18 to go.
Windsor made up for it a moment later by blitzing the 240lb. center George Barton and stealing his most valued possession, also known as a rugby ball. Houston’s veteran inside center Taylor Howden soon found fullback Matt Freyre with a huge pass out wide and Windsor was good from the more difficult angle this time to make it 27-24 at 67’. Windsor tacked on additional penalty kick moments later to extend the lead to 30-24 and it was now or never for Seattle.
Sensing the game was slipping away, Hattingh and flanker Andrew Duratalo each had big, physical runs in the waning moments. However, in what proved to be the story of the match, another Seattle opportunity went begging as a pass was missed behind Turner. The ensuing lineout put the game into stoppage time. Houston executed with a short throw, and #9 Jin Ho Mun kicked the ball out to preserve the impressive Sabercats’ win.
Houston has yet to contend through 2+ MLR seasons. Could we look at this match as a changing of the guard in the Western Conference? Or a one-week aberration in a league that’s quickly becoming known for “Any Given Saturday” surprise victories.
Utah Warriors Outlast Revamped Austin Side
In a battle of two teams that are trying to emerge out of the West as contenders, it was Utah who took down a new-look Austin squad.
Utah fly half Hagen Schulte got the scoring started five minutes in with a penalty kick. That score held until 19’, when Austin lock and vice-captain Sebastian de Chaves dotted down. The successful conversion made it 7-3 heading into the first hydration break.
Warriors’ #9 Michael Baska delivered the lead back to his squad after some strong phase play with a try at 25’. A lineout and overhand flip from Josh Whippy saw Utah double down with another try from #6 Lance Williams, and the 15-7 score held into halftime.
The first 12 minutes of the second stand saw each team threaten, but no points on the board. That’s when hooker Sama Malolo took a Baska pass across the line, and the conversion made it 22-7. The Gilgronis responded just moments later off a lineout, and another good kick closed the gap to 22-14.
The teams played to a draw for the next ten minutes. Utah’s big #8 Juri Van Vuuren rumbled across the try line after a maul to extend the lead to 27-14 entering the final 15 minutes. Austin would not go quietly into the night and responded with a try four minutes later. A knock on after the kickoff delivered a scrum Utah’s way, however, and an ensuing penalty saw another shot at goal. Shulte’s boot gave his squad a two-possession game and it looked good for the Warriors to close things out with the 30-21 advantage.
Austin did come up with a clutch score from big prop Paddy Ryan, and the conversion from Mack Mason put Utah on its heels up only two with five minutes to go. Austin had the put-in on the game’s final scrum and a penalty at the breakdown two minutes into stoppage time saw the tee come out.
The kick was just short, the final whistle blew, and Utah escaped with a huge victory to open the season over a very talented Austin side.
Fast-paced Affair Sees NOLA and Old Glory Battle to a Draw
This game featured two of MLR’s most explosive teams from a year ago. It was also a rematch of a NOLA Gold Week One blowout win, which had Old Glory seeking vengeance this time around. The result did not disappoint when it came to pace, entertainment, and drama.
Old Glory put the pressure on practically from the opening kickoff and was rewarded with a penalty and shot at goal. Jason Robertson, the league’s leading scorer in 2020, wasted no time in starting his 2021 tally. The kick was good and Old Glory had an early 3-0 lead.
NOLA came right back and played in visitors’ territory before earning a penalty. In what proved to be a chess match of clashing coaching styles between DC’s Andrew Douglas and NOLA’s Nate Osborne, NOLA eschewed the shot at goal and kicked the ball deep for a lineout. The hosts executed beautifully with hooker Eric Howard dotting down at the back of the maul. The kick from fullback Carl Meyer went wide and the margin was 5-3 at 7’.
The men in Gold missed touch on the clearance after the kickoff, and Old Glory’s attack soon provided another penalty and shot at goal. At just ten minutes into the new season, Robertson had six points under his belt gave the lead back to his squad.
Then it was NOLA putting the pressure on after a penalty, going into its “coffin corner” attack with the lineout and maul. This time, Old Glory stopped it twice (after a penalty and near-card to new prop Steven Longwell), and the Gold attack was held up in the try zone. Both teams continued to strike and threaten through the first stand before earning the much-needed hydration break at 20’.
NOLA kept the pressure on with a break from fly half Robbie Coleman but DC fullback Mike Dabulas earned another turnover at the ensuing breakdown. After the clearance, a NOLA mishandle gave Old Glory the opportunity to attack and the chance did not go begging. Mobile hooker Mikey Sosenei-Feagai scooped up the loose ball, dished to Danny Tusitala, and he outpaced the defense to score between the points for the visitors’ first seven-pointer of the 2021 season and a 13-5 lead twenty-five minutes in.
The visitors could not escape with momentum, however, as Gold eight-man Cam Dolan found scrummy Holden Yungert for a try before halftime. The Meyer conversion made it a four-point game, 16-12 to the visitors at the break.
NOLA threatened immediately to start the second half, but eight man Jamason Fa’anana-Schultz produced another of what had to be a half-dozen turnovers as the big man returned possession to his team. Old Glory wasted no time in attack, and Tusitala was across for his second try and a 23-12 DC lead.
The Gold come right back with yet another coffin corner kick off the penalty, this time throwing in something different off the lineout that saw replacement scrummy Damian Stevens feed Meyer, who converted to make it 23-19 at 52’.
That lead held entering the final 20 minutes as both teams stemmed off valiant attacks. Robertson finally broke the stalemate at 66’ to extend his squad’s lead to that of a converted try, 26-19. Old Glory’s penalty in the final moments gave up another kick and lineout for NOLA deep in enemy territory, this time on the left-hand side.
DC rebuked the initial attack, but the patient and effective Gold side found space for #13 Juan Cappiiello who dotted down the pivotal try at 77’. With the difficult conversion it seemed that Old Glory might just escape with the win. Meyer banged it through, however, to tie the match.
After a last threat from Old Glory went begging, these two squads begrudgingly accepted the draw, 26-26. It will be interesting to see where each team goes from here, as they were almost exact mirror images of one another.
DC’s coach Andrew Douglas sent Robertson for points at almost every turn. Osborne wanted tries, tries, and more tries. Similarly, Old Glory yielded plenty of turnovers of its own set pieces, while NOLA’s phase play got loose.
If either can clean up its respective weaknesses, it will find itself in contention for the 2021 season.
Gary Gold joins Pete and James to discuss USA Rugby's successful series
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Written by Joe Harvey | Photos by Travis Prior Beating Canada 38-16
Former USA Eagle and MLR Commentator James Paterson joins Pete to catch
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