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Monday Morning Fly Half: Whose Line Is It Anyway?

 

                                          


Hello ruggers. Though I am not religious, I wish all who celebrate this season a happy holidays. I hope you all fulfilled your obligations as American rugby fans to guilt, browbeat or otherwise cajole your family and friends into watching some Major League Rugby action during your weekend gatherings.

What is a Freejack?

After three weeks, hard to say what a 2021 Freejack really is. Getting dusted in Week 1 by the Giltinis was an inauspicious start, but subsequent results suggest that it said more about the Giltinis than the Freejacks.

Since that loss, the Jacks blanked Houston on the road and now outfought surging Utah Warriors in their first ever home match.

In fairness, Utah did not play well. They seemed itnent on bungling every attacking opportunity. Fraser Hurst, the scrum half who burst onto the scene last week with an impressive try, did not back that performance on Saturday. He was slow to the ball and he rarely threatened to attack himself, freeing the defense to largely ignore him and set on the flat-footed Utah rush. 

Still, the Freejacks won with hardnosed, low-mistake rugby. In a season where the basic skills are still a bit shaky from complications to Covid, maybe that's enough. On April 17th they head down to NOLA. That will be a chance to show what they're really made of.

Forgotten Lines

We're all piecing together what to make of MLR 2021. One question we are compelled to debate is the magnitude of Covid's impact. No offseason. No preseason. Straight to live action rugby after nearly a year on the shelf. 

Week after week, teams are shaking off rust, building back their continuity and tightening up their defenses. As we discussed on Earful of Dirt last week, these games have a definite "preseason" feel to them. One manifestation of that phenomon is the lineout.

Lineouts have been awful. Where we broadly expect teams to retain a large majority of lineouts in rugby at large, MLR retention rates have been horrid. Though MLR's stats page doesn't show percentage of lineouts won, often the team who is better able to execute critical lineouts seems to come out the winner. 

That, of course, is a problem. But it is also an opportunity. Knowing that your opponent cannot reliably retain a lineout opens some doors that teams should be exploiting in these early weeks.

Firstly, teams aren't using tactical kicking enough. The trade off when kicking to find touch is exchaging territory for posession. That trade off often makes sense in the flow of rugby. But when teams cannot keep their own throws, it is an even more compelling value proposition. It becomes territoty plus a decent chance to retain posession. Effectively, it turns a kick from hand into a penalty kick.

Second, these teams need to be putting up jumpers on every throw. Far too often the defending line just sits there and allows the throw to be taken by the attack. Ostensibly, this is to better position for maul defense. In practice, it may just be to give the forwards a bit of a breather. Either way, it is short sighted. Teams are having far more success disurpting lineouts than they are defending mauls. Furthermore, it's not as if putting up a jumper precludes a maul defense. Both can and should be done on virtually every throw. Today, that isn't happening. 

Lastly, it calls for a little more aggressiveness around the breakdown when outside penalty kick range. Typically, one fears a penalty in that scenario because of the subseuqent kick to touch and lineout. But if the lineout is a jump ball, then the risk/reward calculation for jackal attempts leans towards more risky jackaling.

So far, only Toronto seem to have made these adjustments. They applied these lessons, by game plan or by luck, to great effect in their win against Old Glory this weekend. They used the boot for territory, putting kicks into touch and capitalizing on botched lineouts. They put up jumpers almost every throw (and notably when they failed to do so, Old Glory generated good attacking ball). And they were aggressive at the breakdown, out-working their opponents to gain an advantage. Once they had built a bit of a lead, they started playing with a comfort and confidence not seen in the blue and white since last season. They cruised to an unexpectedly convincing victory.

Other teams should follow suit if they want to pick up some early season wins.

De-clawed

For the second week in a row, the Houston SaberCats failed to register a point. It's not a good look down in Houston, where I thought things were trending up after Week 1. 

They were completely outplayed by Austin in the first of the season's Texas Bowls. Other than Sam Windsor, who is living his own Greek tragedy on the Cats, they lacked almost any danger in attack. 

Austin, on the other hand, played well. With Jamie Mackintosh and Paddy Ryan packing down at prop, that front row is looking imposing. Along with the strong lineout throwing and ball carrying of hooker Austin (no really) Koch, they might be the form front row in MLR right now. Only 1-2, Austin could easily be 3-0 having lost both previous contests with failed opportunities to win at the death.

Unfortunately for Hosuton, who appear to be mired in an unescapable franchise quicksand, it is Austin who look like they're the Texan team who are really trending up.