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Monday Morning Fly Half: Must See TV

                                                         

As we approach the halfway point of a strange 2021 season, Major League Rugby might have just experienced its most entertaining weekend in history. With a full slate of six matches, each decided by less than a converted try, fans were treated to a Mother’s Day Weekend extravaganza of exciting finishes.

Perfect Endings

From the New England FreeJacks’ gutsy win over Austin - stealing the ball to put an end to Austin’s night - all the way to Seattle’s first home win in a rematch of the last Shield final (back in 2019), every single contest came down to the final play. With an average victory margin at a mere three points, the full force of MLR’s parity was on display.

Though Week 8 was packed with thrillers, a few finishes stand out.

First was Atlanta. Rugby ATL had already beaten Toronto in Week 1, but managed the season sweep on Saturday in the inaugural Fire & Ice Cup. It was a back and forth affair, with both defenses working effectively to keep the game close. Down three, a penalty in the final minutes gave Atlanta a chance to try for a penalty goal and likely draw. Instead, they went for the corner. The gamble paid off, as MLR veteran Ross Deacon powered over the tryline for the win at the death. 

Only a few hours later, Utah stole a win in front of a boisterous Zions Bank crowd. It had been a hard fought contest with multiple lead changes and even a Jason Robertson drop goal. But approaching the finish, Old Glory were holding down a six point lead. Following a scrum feed at the Old Glory try line in the 81st minute, Utah’s Hagen Schulte changed the direction of play to feed Mika Kruse, who cut a sharp angle to break the line and score the try just outside the posts. To win, Schulte would also need the conversion, which he slotted, prompting a hearty cheer from the stands and a wave of black-clad teammates running out onto the field in celebration. 

Throw in New England, NOLA and Seattle with comeback wins and, of course, New York bringing down the LA colossus, and you’ve got two days of pure rugby spectacle. MLR has never looked so good.

Ending of Perfection

Waking up on Sunday morning, MLR had a perfect team. The LA Giltinis had won six-from-six and registered six bonus points. By the time fans went to bed on Sunday, LA’s perfect season was over. The Giltinis fell on the road to New York in another newly dubbed cup - the Champagne Cup - by a score of 18-16. For LA, a team that had been averaging an eye-popping 44 points per game, it was a stark change of fate. 

New York simply would not allow LA to play their game. The RUNY defensive line speed and sureness in the tackle meant LA almost never broke the defensive line. RUNY committed to every play, working hard after tackles to quickly platform over the ball and slow down Goddard’s recycle. And they seemed to emphasize finishing the tackles, keeping the legs driving after initial contact and putting their ball carriers down at challenging angles, making quick placement difficult. 

It must be said that LA were missing their star fly half Matt Giteau, as well as a few other typical starters. Nevertheless, the defensive effort, led by lock Nate Brakeley, was far beyond anything we’ve seen defenses achieve against LA to date. Combined with gutsy efforts by Hanco Germishuys and Will Leonard, as well as 18 points from the boot of fly half Dan Hollinshead, RUNY did what many had fairly argued could not be done. 

They beat the otherwise perfect Giltinis. Turns out RUNY will be drinking champage from the first ever Champagne Cup this week.

Perfectly Balanced

How even is the eastern conference? After eight weeks, the two conference playoff spots are entirely up for grabs. Every team has a legitimate chance at one. Last place Old Glory have already drawn with first place NOLA Gold. Toronto sit second from last with an underwhelming 3-5 record, despite having the best point differential in the conference and having recently bludgeoned second place NY. 

NOLA are looking down on the field, but they barely snuck by the 2-4 (now 2-5) Houston SaberCats this week. And New York have twice allowed opponents to put up 50 points.

The top four teams remain within three table points, meaning any of them could be in first place by the end of next week. Last place Old Glory are nine points in the hole, an amount that could be made up in two weeks time with the benefit of bonus points. The same nine point margin separates first from third in the western conference, for comparison purposes. 

Thinking ahead to the back half of the season, it looks like the eastern conference is set for a photo finish. 

Heart of Starfire

There has only been one Shield champion in MLR history. The Seattle Seawolves lifted the shield in both year one and year two. Year three was sacrificed on the altar of COVID. 

In year one, Seattle beat the heavily favored (and now extinct) Glendale Raptors in the final. In year two, it was the heavily favored San Diego Legion downed by a maul for glory

Fast forward to 2021 and Seattle hosting San Diego doesn’t involve quite the same sizzle. Seattle sat at a meager 1-5 coming into the week, with the Legion a slightly better 2-5. Both teams are well behind pace-setter LA in the west.

Still, they fought bravely this weekend with all the competitiveness, if perhaps not quit the same importance, of the 2019 Shield final. And Seattle were able to leave victorious in front of a loyal Starfire crowd. 

Is it a sign of better things to come for our defending champion? Perhaps. The western conference playoffs may be out of reach at this stage, but Seattle at home is looking far more dangerous than the largely listless team we’ve seen around the country earlier this year. Though only the most diehard Seawolf fan would argue that the Shield is likely to stay within Starfire’s friendly confines at the end of the year, at least the rest of its tenure there is showing some signs of pride.