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Monday Morning Fly Half: Five Bold Predictions for MLR 2021

                                          

Hello once again my friends. Acolytes of the oval ball. Disciples of the scrum. It has been many moons since competitive professional rugby was played in these United States, such as it is. Since MLR 2020 was unceremoniously sent-off by Sir Covid, a lot has changed in the world.

We’ve grown accustomed to the socially-distanced life: masks, Zoom calls, limited public gatherings and virtually no rugby. Many have experienced tremendous loss. Most have experienced, at the very least, some degree of cabin fever.

Yet one thing has not changed. With another MLR season approaching, it is time for another set of bold predictions from your friendly neighborhood Monday Morning Fly Half. This will be the third year of bold predictions, though the first on the EoD platform.

I won’t rehash where we’ve been. You can find my previous predictions here and here. Feel free to judge their accuracy for yourself.

But with a pandemic-shortened 2020 campaign and nearly a year without a single phase of rugby, making predictions for 2021 will be especially difficult. Nevertheless, we march on.

As a reminder, these predictions are meant to be bold. Meaning, they shouldn’t be things many people believe are likely to happen. If I pick something that everyone agrees with, I consider myself just as wrong as picking something that doesn’t happen. So if your first reaction is “GTFOH,” then good! That’s the reaction I want.

Prediction 1: Beasts in the East

I predict that the eastern conference will dominate the season. Not two-time defending and still technically champion Seattle. Not last year’s apparent juggernaut San Diego. Not flashy newcomers with their Aussie flavor in LA. It will be the east.

The east just strikes me as strength after strength. NOLA have been a pinnacle of consistency, building around a core of multi-year contracts. Rugby ATL and Old Glory had strong opening campaigns and should be done with the expansion jitters. New York and Toronto have never failed to be dangerous. 

The west, on the other hand, is in a bit of disarray. The Texan teams have never proven that they can compete across a full season (and the expansion Jackals, of course, have delayed their entry). Utah have undergone significant changes since the first year of MLR when they were led by Kurt Morath and Paul Lasike. After those key departures, they’ve never really found consistent footing and are now under new management, with the new head coach resigning in January and giving way to a new-new head coach. The Seawolves have always managed to outperform expectations, notoriously so in year 1, but by the 2020 season the cracks were beginning to show. They simply haven’t kept up with a rapidly improving league quality, and I expect them to be a middling team this year.

And then there’s San Diego. For many, the Legion are the favorites. But with a year in temporary home Las Vegas, the loss of key backs Mikey Te’o and Ma’a Nonu, and some surprising uncertainty in their half-back pairing, I see San Diego falling short of expectations this year. 

Prediction: The east wins over 65% of contests against the west, and no western team is better than .500 against the east.

Prediction 2: Falling Stars

This is sort of similar to a prediction from last year, but I’m taking it even further this year. As with the 2020 season, we’ve seen a litany of big name signings lighting up the Twitter feed. Former England Captain Chris Robshaw will be suiting up for San Diego (Las Vegas). Australian legends Adam Ashley-Cooper and Matt Giteau join the LA Giltinis. All Black Andy Ellis joins Rugby United New York. 

Last year I said that no international signing would be player of the year. For my next trick, I predict that the international stars will not even be major difference-makers this year.

We’ve already seen that simply being a marquee name doesn’t automatically translate into marquee performance in MLR. Opinions may differ on why, but from Ben Foden to Ma’a Nonu to the beast Tendai Mtawarira to Matthieu Bastareaud, we’ve seen major internationals arrive with their shadows looming larger than their play. 

The truth is, rugby is so system oriented. No individual can just boot-up and take over the game. Even the best players need a team that puts them in position to excel. It isn’t clear that MLR teams know how to do that for big time imports. 

On the other hand, the locals, the college players, the MLR veterans; they are more in tune with the existing American rugby play style. For better or worse, players steeped in that style can more easily approach their peak performances. Whereas new internationals are limited by unfamiliarity with the supporting cast around them, those used to that cast are empowered. 

Put me down as bearish on international signings in 2021 and bullish on surprise contributions from new domestic talent (specifically recent college players).

Prediction: No new international signing will lead his team in Man-of-the-Match or MLR First XV honors.

Prediction 3: Dirty Giltinis

I suspect, especially with the signing of AAC and Giteau, that many people might be expecting big things from LA’s expansion season. 

Not me. I predict Giltinis finish bottom half of the western conference.

At the end of the day, I’m just not a believer in throwing a bunch of people together with minimal preparation or mutual experience. I don’t think it’s a strategy that breeds success in rugby. And even though LA may have some of the best individual talent in MLR, I don’t see how they will be able to bring it together to compete across the pitch for 80 minutes with so little time together. 

Even though I think the western conference will be weak, I still put the Giltinis toward the bottom

Prediction: Giltinis finish bottom half of western conference.

Prediction 4: New Partnerships

2021 will be the year that MLR books some big name sponsorships. You’ve already begun to see it with the American Airlines partnership, which is a fantastic development for the league. Financial details are scarce, and one can surmise that ongoing pandemic-related struggles for the airline industry made this particular headline more attractive to the AA executives. Still, any travel discounts associated with the partnership will be a huge boon for a league struggling to generate cash flow.

But I predict we will see at least one other major sponsor join the ranks this season. MLR has now been around since 2017. It has proven resilient, surviving and even paying players through the 2020 lost season. It has continued to attract international talent. In July of last year, MLR brought on a sport sponsorship agency to help bring in new partners. 

These are nascent signs of financial viability. Very nascent. But signs nonetheless. And a financially viable sports league in the American market without any major sponsors is a huge opportunity across dozens of domestic industries. 

2021, that opportunity will start to bear fruit. 

Prediction: MLR will announce at least one more major league sponsor by the end of the 2021 season.

Prediction 5: Northeastern Winter

I’ve saved this one for last. It pains me to type it. And yet my head cannot deny what my heart would reject. 

I predict no northeast team makes the playoffs. That includes my beloved RUNY and the 2020 conference leading Toronto Arrows, as well as the NE Freejacks. 

Toronto will be perpetually on the road, their home games in Atlanta. RUNY have had a lot of changeover, including the sudden departure of the coach weeks before the season. I expect them both to be solid squads, but not solid enough. New England, especially with the departure of Tadhg Leader, may flounder.

For me, the southeast is where the balance of power will reside in 2021. Between NOLA, Rugby ATL and a surprisingly strong Old Glory, I think our 2021 eastern conference playoffs will be a southern affair.

Prediction: RUNY, Toronto and New England will all miss the 2021 eastern conference playoffs.