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Monday Morning Fly Half: Why Do I Even Make Picks?



What. Just. Happened?

Major League Rugby's 2021 season is setting a new standard for volatility. In a sport where sometimes upsets can seem rare, the first two weeks of results have been as unpredictable as you will see (I know, since I'm getting most picks wrong on Earful of Dirt). Raise your hand if you had Toronto in overall dead last, San Diego in fifth and Utah tied for first through two weeks.

New Glory

After an impressive Week 1 draw in New Orleans, Old Glory added to their case for shield contender with a win over expansion-rival Atlanta. Granted, it's only been two weeks. But Danny Tusitala is playing like the league MVP. After being the form scrum half in the league, he casually slipped into the 10 shirt for injured Jason Robertson. Undaunted, he dominated anyway. He even kicked sticks.

Atlanta, also dealing with the loss of their primary fly half, kept it close. They've shown consistently strong defense over the first two weeks, especially considering the state of defenses elsewhere in MLR. And Atlantan locks are best in the league. But in the end, they just couldn't match Old Glory's big play execution.

 In that arena, hats off once again to Jamason Fa'anana Schultz, who is putting his hand up to be starting 8man for the USA Eagles. From power runs to critical turnovers in high-pressure situations, he has been a flag-bearer for Old Glory.

Pick 'Em

I mean. I don't know. How can anyone pick these outcomes? How do Houston slay old demons by beating Seattle Week 1 and then get nulled by New England?  How do the Toronto Arrows and San Diego Legion, last season's clubhouse leaders, both stumble to a combined 1-3 start? A few minutes from 0-4, with the Legion stealing a late win in Austin. How can our only shield winner, Seattle Seawolves, look so far from a three-peat?

One thing, maybe the best thing, that MLR has always offered is parity. But this is taking parity to a new level. It almost feels like randomness. And while parity is a huge asset in any sporting competition, randomness is more of a weakness.

Look, I've loved the uncertainty of these results. It has been quality entertainment and anyone new checking out The Rugby Network and rugby for the first time is likely to be pleased with the product. 

And I have not overlooked the reality that rugby, after a cold-year of pandemic induced suspension, is expected to be extra rusty. 

Still, I would be lying if a pit of concern didn't form in my stomach this week. People tune into sports for excitement but also for excellence of performance. That's why it's so memorable watching the greats. And if the outcomes start to feel truly random, then performance starts to seem meaningless. Roulette is fun to play and many people enjoy it but you don't see major TV rights being sold to watch it.

Likewise, exciting rugby where the winners are hard to predict will make excellent TV for an American audience. But rugby where there is no consistent performance by anyone from week-to-week may struggle to gain a foothold. It's just harder to get invested in a team when the storylines and trends from one week are completely re-written the next.

I'm not saying we're there yet. Not even close. It's only Week 2 afterall. And we have had a long layoff with virtually no preseason. I expect teams to sharpen up across the board. But if they don't, I'll remember Week 2 as the point where concerns started to manifest. Parity is good. Randomness is bad.

Hold 'Em

MLR 2021 could be compared to several casino games. If roulette isn't to your taste, how about poker? In the sense that, man, we have seen a lot of cards.

As of Sunday evening, the MLR website  had a combined 21 yellow cards. 21! Through two weeks! Add in the two red cards and that is nearly an average of a card per team per week.

I'll tell you what. I kind of dig it. I'm not sure how my default opinion of yellow cards first arose. But I've always viewed them how I perceive the fanbase at large views them - as highly disruptive penalties that could change the outcome of the game. 

But I did watch and play hockey growing up. In hockey, where there are only five skaters on the ice at a time, playing a man down is commonplace. And exciting! As I've reflected on MLR's high card rate, it occured to me that maybe it isn't something to complain about. Maybe it's a feature, not a bug.

Think about it. Man advantages create attacking opportunities, create drama, create moments of inspired bravery in defense. All stuff you love to see. And if they are being given out a little more freely, then they are also a bit less disruptive. Sure you may play down a man for ten minutes, but at some point you'll probably be up a man for ten minutes. And that is 20 minutes of rugby that's probably more exciting for it.

One of my most clear self-realizations so far in 2021 is not to fear the card. 

Next Week's Picks

I have no idea. Seriously. None.