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Monday Morning Fly Half: The Halfway Point Predictions

                                                        

With the conclusion of Week 9, each team now has at least eight fixtures in the books. Which means we've officially passed the halfway point of the season. What better time to reflect on where we stand and where we are likely to go through the back half of Major League Rugby's 2021 season?

Where We Stand

It's a Giltini world. Despite taking their first loss last week against New York, the Giltinis bounced back with a convincing win over conference rival Utah Warriors. In so doing, the Giltinis cement their place as the champions of the first half. They lead the league in scoring. By alot. Their 336 points are a cool 75 points higher than Toronto, who have scored the second most with 261. Defense not too shabby either, as they trail only their Austinian gil-counterparts in points conceded.

Outside the city of angels, the picture is quite a bit more muddled. Pulling up the rear we find Seattle (2-6), Houston (2-6), and San Diego (3-6). Three western conference sides who are, in all likelihood, watching the post season on The Rugby Netowrk. All three challenged their higher ranked eastern conference opponents this week. In fact, San Diego shook off an early try by the NOLA Gold to ultimately thrash the visitors 43-17. It was but the latest in a long series of confirmations that, in MLR, really any team can win on any given day.  

Wedged in the middle, the rest of our teams are vying for playoff berths. Even Old Glory DC, who are today sitting in last place in the East, are only four points out of a playoff spot. That is a margin which could be made up by next week.

And yet none of these other scrappy contenders have managed to emerge from the pack. Toronto have looked the part from time-to-time, and yet they shockingly still sport a below-500 record. Even after dropping Houston this week, they're a mere 4-5. RUNY have a big notch in their belt, having spoiled the Giltinis' perfect season. But they are also carrying a frightening -46 point differential. That's fourth worst in the league. NOLA this weekend got pumped by a struggling San Diego team, dropping out of the top two in the East. Atlanta have emerged as the latest eastern conferene leader on a good run of form but owning some painful early season losses to DC and New York. Still, they may have found something in South African back Adriaan Carlese that can lead them to a bright second half. New England have yet to win against an eastern conference opponent.

In the west, Austin and Utah have been slugging it out for the second playoff spot behind what appears to be a Giltini lock for the first. Austin live by defense and set piece, whereas Utah live by power and attack. Utah already beat Austin in the season opener, with Austin's bid to win on a penalty goal falling short at the death. The May 29th rematch could be a key turning point in the western race. 

Where We're Going

Given just how crowded the playoff chase remains, predictions are difficult. But we're going to try.

First the west.

Austin have arguably their most critical two weeks on deck. In a rare Wednesday clash, they will be hosting the Cocktail Bowl down in Texas. Ten days later, they travel to Zions Bank to take on Utah. It's a brutal back-to-back, but could also be a huge opportuniuty. They're hosting LA in the Southern heat on only three days rest. Applying that creamsicle wall defense to a weary LA side could be just the thing for dialing up another Giltini loss. Then, followed by a ten day rest to prepare for Utah, Austin could very well sweep this crucial series.

After that, Austin will only face one team currently over .500 for the rest of the year - the rematch in LA. Utah, on the other hand, will face five over .500 teams in their final eight contests. They also catch Seattle in Starfire, which is always a more challenging beast. Given that scheduling, and that Austin are today a point ahead of Utah, I am ready to make a prediction.

It is a Gil-sweep of playoff spots in the west.

Now the east. Oh the east. Yes, the east. 

It's not exactly a six-way tie for first. But it's close. Atlanta are the leaders after Week 9, but their 26 table points are only four points ahead of fourth place Toronto. New York, in second with 24 points, could theoretically be in last by next week. That's how close it all is. 

Atlanta's schedule won't be easy. Next two weeks entail a cross-country trip to Seattle and then hosting the Giltini buzzsaw. Both could conceivably be losses. Then it's down to NOLA and up to New York (who already beat them). An expectation that Atlanta lose three of their next four would be reasonable. 

New York have a bit of an easier schedule, with five of their last seven opponents under .500. They'll need it though, as they've only managed a paltry four bonus points. That's fewest in the conference and tied with Seattle for fewest in the league.

NOLA have only two more home games, both in the next two weeks and against tough opposition (Utah and Atlanta). They'll need a run of road victories to see this season through to a succesful conclusion. A finale in New York (ahem New Jersey) could very well be a playoff decider for both.

Toronto may have the friendliest schedule, if a team permantly housed in a foreign country can have a friendly schedule. They are "home" for their big remaining conference clashes, including NOLA and New York in the second half of June. But having fallen off the lead pace, Toronto can ill afford any hiccups. 

New England have a tough remaining schedule, with only Seattle at home seeming like a comfortable win prediction. At least most of their remaining fixtures are home. 

Old Glory, who barely escaped hosting Seattle this week, have a lot of winnable matches but have a lot of teams to pass to stay in the hunt. Their destiny is not in their own hands and they'll need some serious stumbling from the top to kit up for the knock out rounds.  

So difficult to call. But looking at the schedules remaining and current form, I am ready to make a prediction.

I foresee an incredibly close race that features a three way dead-heat between Toronto, NOLA and New York going to the last week. In the end, New York and Toronto with the easier schedules will sneak into the playoffs.