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Monday Morning Fly Half: MLR is Back!

                                           


“The beginning is the most important part of the work” - Plato

And we are back! The beginning of Major League Rugby’s 2021 season is upon us. Long have we waited. It was by no means a perfect return to action. And yet, as is often the way with MLR, there was no shortage of excitement. Supported for the first time by a proprietary, free streaming platform, fans were treated to some thrilling, if not exactly clinical, rugby during opening week.

The Bigger They Are

Before the coronavirus bid early adieu to MLR’s 2020 season, two giants had emerged. In the west, the San Diego Legion reigned supreme at 5-0. In the east, north of the Wall, the Arrows boasted a 4-1 record. Combined, the two conference leaders had battled their way to a +115 point differential through five weeks, meaning they were averaging an aggregate 11.5 point margin of victory.

So it was no surprise that, for many, these two teams were the incumbents. They were the pre-season favorites and the teams to beat.

And beat they were.

In the first MLR match since last March, Rugby United New York stopped San Diego 36-29, ending the Legion’s unbeaten streak. With major signing Chris Robshaw MIA and team-leader Joe Pietersen likewise absent, the Legion couldn’t keep pace against the New Yorkers in a back-and-forth affair littered with unforced errors.

Shortly thereafter, Toronto followed suit. The Arrows bent the knee to their new hosts, Rugby ATL, who continue to impress with largely local talent. Time will tell if the retirement of Dan Moor has left Toronto bereft of its 2020 magic. 

It goes to show that, after a year off, this is anyone’s league.

A Dish Best Served Cold

RUNY’s win over San Diego was no doubt made all the sweeter by memories of 2019. In the 2019 playoffs, San Diego edged RUNY in a nail-biter, advancing to the championship. It was a bitter end to New York’s season and a road opener victory in 2021 is a proper payback.

It was not, however, the only one. Revenge opportunities were on tap in Week 1 and the rounds were flowing. 

Nowhere were they as generous as in New Orleans, where the Gold were once again hosting Old Glory DC to begin the year. So it was in 2020, when the Gold walloped Old Glory to the tune of 46-13. Old Glory would go on to turn their shortened 2020 campaign around, winning out their remaining four fixtures. Still, the embarrassing loss left a mark.

Coming into Sunday (re-scheduled due to Covid), FS2 reported in the pregame coverage that the mantra for Old Glory was “Redemption instead of revenge.” Whatever it was, it worked. Almost. 

Old Glory ripped out to an early lead, sparked by dangerous scrum half Danny Tusitala and ferocious 8man Jamason Fa’anana Schultz. They controlled the scoreboard most of the way, despite NOLA dominating territory and possession. It looked like it might be done and dusted until NOLA’s Juan Capiello dotted down in the final minutes. Only after Carl Meyer capped his stellar day by knocking down a difficult conversion did NOLA draw it even, which is where it would end. Perhaps bittersweet for DC, who had victory in their grasp. Still, they avenged their only franchise loss in history. And they did it on the road in the same setting where it originally occurred. 

A bit further west, Houston SaberCats were hosting two-time champions Seattle Seawolves. Two of the original MLR franchises, they have had divergent paths. Houston have always provoked high hopes. With a long and public pre-season before MLR 2018 (year one), the SaberCats were respected and feared.

Seattle, on the other hand, were little known. I recall an ad hoc pre-season poll putting them last. Undaunted, Seattle would go on to win the first two and only two MLR shields. Houston would win only a handful of matches. 

Saturday evening, Houston had the chance to reverse the trend. In a pitched, seesaw of a game, the SaberCats finally found their way to the winner’s circle against a top-performing franchise. It took a full team effort, including set piece wins against Seattle that would have been unthinkable against Seattle of years past. Mark this week as a turning of the tide, when Houston finally began to reach its potential and Seattle readied to pass the champion’s torch.

Armor Shortage

Major League Rugby is back! Not clear that defense came back with it.

Let’s face it. There has been no rugby for a year. Even training has been hard to come by. It showed.

The average score this weekend was a healthy 27.75. The lowest score was from Toronto, who managed only 14. Expansion team LA Giltinis led the pack, dropping 42 on the visiting New England Free Jacks.

Broadly speaking, these were error-prone matches with shambolic and inconsistent defensive efforts. MLR quality of play had been trending up. It did not trend up this week. But if we’re being honest, it was to be expected. There was just no way 12 sharp teams were taking the pitch after the rugby lay-off we’ve experienced.

Nevertheless, the drama was back in full force. Aside from LA, who pounded on the ‘Jacks, every other contest was within a one try margin. Five of our six fixtures came down to the wire, and several could be considered upsets. The skills were rusty, but they will improve as players get back into pre-COVID form. Still, you can’t teach “excitement” and you can’t force parity. MLR has always managed to have that, at least.

A Network of Their Own

Was awesome. Is awesome. The Rugby Network, MLR’s new streaming app, has been with us only a few days. It came through big in Week 1.

One would be forgiven for having some doubt during the San Diego v New York opener. The broadcast quality from Vegas was abysmal. Camera clarity and angles were awful. There were (I think) two yellow cards given to New York, though I saw zero cards shown on screen. 

That wasn’t the only issue. Broadcasters were typically remote, and it often showed. They were subject to the same inconsistent camera work as us watching at home, and seemed at times to struggle to piece the action together. 

Regardless of the errors, it was a huge success. Aside from SDvNY, the camera quality was adequate. Most of the rugby action (if not always officiating action) was clear and easy to follow. And it was all on-time, working as promised, easy to use and COMPLETELY FREE.

If MLR wants to become a successful business venture, it must find a way to monetize the exciting rugby football being played in its name. Owning a platform that can live stream matches is a critical milestone in that journey. There’s some work to do, for sure, but chalk this one up in the win column for MLR.

Shaken and Stirred

Is how one might describe New England after absorbing the onslaught LA brought in their debut fixture. It was a blood bath, with contributions well-spread among LA’s headline names. New England, for their part, were able to score points. But they never really looked able to earn the W.

It will get harder for LA. New England may be one of this year’s weaker teams, LA won’t always be playing in their gorgeous home stadium, its older players may struggle to keep up throughout the year. But those are problems for future weeks. For now, LA is here, they are real and they are spectacular.