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Monday Morning Fly Half: A Whole Lotta Scoring Going On

                                                         

Happy Monday oh ye rugby fans. Another entertaining week of Major League Rugby complete. We saw some line up changes, a continuing contrast between the convergence of the east table versus the divergence of the west table, and a whole lotta scoring.

The Defense Rests

MLR teams are scoring a lot of points. In Week 6, the lowest winning score was 35. The average winning score was a shockingly high 44 points. Even the average losing score was a respectable 23 points. 

Interestingly, comparing that to this week's English Premiership scores reveals a strange disconnect. Featuring six matches, the same as this week of MLR, the Prem average losing score was also 23 points. However, the average winning score was a mere 30 points. In fact, with the highest score being the Wasps at 39, no English team scored even as high as the average MLR winner this week.

This is just one week, of course. But I suspect if one looked back across the season one would find similar results.

What does it mean?

Well, opinions wll no doubt vary. But here is my take.

  1. Leagues have styles. MLR plays a little more open, a little more attack-oriented, a little riskier style of rugby that is inherently going to produce wider variation in scores
  2. Defense is really an act of team-level commitment and coordination. Whereas attack can be generated by isolated groups at different points in time, defense is a full-team shift. And MLR teams are able, at present, to generate impressive attacking ball in isolated groups but have not yet reached the level of coordination required to play equivalent quality defense.
Attack needs to work across a handful of offensive players to generate an opportunity. Defense needs to be maintained by all 15 players all the time. Right now, Major League Rugby teams (for the most part, Austin a possible exception) just aren't coherent enough as a unit to stop a few well-made attacking moves.

What will be interesting to see is how this evolves as the season progresses. We've covered many times in this column and on Earful of Dirt podcast how the opening weeks were effectively a pre-season. I think that's right. But defense is going to take a little longer than attack to get into mid-season form. I don't believe it's there yet. But as we get a few more weeks under our belts, we will begin to decipher if the scoring rampages are more a result of #1 or #2. If scores come down, that would suggest #2. If they stay this high all season, sounds more like #1. Only time will tell. 

The Near East

The eastern conference is in a dead heat. With two blowouts on the bounce, Toronto have lept up to first place with 16 table points. But their placement is only based on a tiebreaker, as Atlanta also have 16 points. New York and NOLA are right on their tails, with 15 a piece. 

All told, the top five teams in the conference are within 3 points of each other, or in other words are less than one win apart. New England is not far behind, only five points off the leader with 11.

Head west and you find a different picture. The LA Giltinis continue their romp through their hapless MLR opposition, sitting on 25 points (5-0 with 5 BP wins). Austin and Utah, both winners this week, are keeping pace at 21 and 19, respectively. But the rest of the conference is beginning to drop out of contention. San Diego tread water at 13, with the 'Cats right below them at 12. Poor Seattle have only managed six table points through five games. Compared to the east, where five points separates first from last, here the gap is 19 points.

That makes these eastern coference match ups especially critical as we get into the heart of the season. Toronto in particular have a couple of tasty contests incoming, with both NOLA and then a rematch against Atlanta on tap over the next two weeks.

Who's on First?

RUNY, who had been playing well since their bye and coming off their best win of the season over Old Glory, made some stark changes to their line up this week. And Toronto, who made only one roster change from their smashing prior victory, absolutely hammered them. Not playing too shabby themselves, Toronto are the second eastern conference team to drop 50 points on New York. Those may be tough losses to overcome as the playoff race builds towards the end of the season.

Notably, Andy Ellis, veteran scrum half, went to the bench for a breather this week. But that wasn't the only change. The center pairing was new, bringing Troy Lockyear (made his 2021 debut at 15 last week) and Quinn Ngawati (heretofore firmly ensconced at wing) in to work together at midfield for the first time. In fact, aside from Dan Hollinshead not a single back starter remained consistent from the previous week's big win.

Why?

Certainly it is important to rest key players throughout the season to manage their load. And Andy Ellis is no spring chicken. But why choose to rest your biggest on-field leader this week against a critical conference rival when Seattle and their six table points await next week? Why completely shift the entire back line?

Looking back on this contest, I am left feeling that New York played the game as if little were at stake. Andy Ellis finally came in after his replacement's box kick was charged down for a try early in the second half. But shortly after Ellis came on, the majority of the pack went off and a slew of players who hadn't logged many minutes this season entered. Even Hollinshead went to the bench for the first time this year.

For a match that was actually in range until late in the second half, it was all a bit peculiar. I'm sure the RUNY players appreciate the load management and supporters can understand it to a certain extent, but for the team to play at its best, it is going to need more line-up consistency than it has been getting.