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Monday Morning Fly Half: Statement Week

                                                            

Happy Memorial Day! I wish you all delightful and hearty barbecues. If you think of it, take a moment in rememberance of the men and women who gave the “last full measure of devotion” for their country.

Week 11 of Major League Rugby saw several teams put in shifts that will cause followers of the league to take notice. As we enter the home stretch of the 2021 season, teams are looking to build momentum for a playoff run. It's time for contenders to step up. Looking at Week 11, several competitors did just that.

“Don’t Give LA the Shield Just Yet”

Rugby ATL are not quite ready to anoint LA Giltinis as champions-apparent. They stuffed LA in an east coast showdown on Saturday night, holding LA to only 12 points. That is a new season low for LA. 

Atlanta did it by utterly dominating the gain line. Line speed and physicality in the tackle proved too much for LA to overcome. The vaunted LA attack simply couldn’t get anything going in the face of the defensive pressure Atlanta were bringing to bear. 

Bautista Ezcurra’s move to #12 has been a boon for Atlanta, and combined with Carelse at #10, has unlocked an attacking prowess unseen earlier in the season for the Rattlers. It was enough on Saturday to outlast the Giltinis and send them home with their second loss of the year.

Is it time to worry in LA? Seems a bit silly to ask, given their commanding lead of the western conference and their statistical dominance of the season. And yet, since NY exposed LA’s vulnerability to being challenged at the point of contact and the breakdown, the LA super stars have appeared decidedly human. After scoring 40+ points in each of their first six games, they haven’t broken the 40 barrier once in the previous four. In three of those four, they scored fewer than 20. 

The memo is out. LA is beatable. The offense can be slowed. Don’t give them the Shield just yet.

“Playoff Spot Is Utah’s To Lose”

In a critical western conference match up, Utah pummeled the Gilgronis of Austin, completing the Gil-sweep for the week. Austin entered with an unusual line up, keeping stalwarts Jamie Mackintosh and Paddy Ryan on the bench. Combined with the absence of several key attackers, including first round pick Conner Mooneyham, Austin were never able to gain any momentum in this one.

Additionally, the orange and white seemed to struggle with the altitude. By the end of the first half, the league's best defensive line was slow getting back into shape after tackles, leaving opportunities for the dangerous Utah attack to slice them up. Mikey Te’o and Michael Baska, both recently named to Gary Gold’s 41-man roster for USA summer internationals, were pressing the attack. 

On the other side of the ball, Austin continued to lack any real attacking bite. With neither individual players reliably creating plays, nor a team attacking shape with any ambition, the attack never got out of neutral. This team needs Mooneyham back in a bad way as it looks to keep pace in a battle with Utah and San Diego.

Utah have now swept the season series over Austin, which could be decisive in the western playoff race. With the win, they take sole possession and a five point edge on the last playoff spot. A visit to Utah from resurgent San Diego on June 12 looms large for post season implications. 

“Give Us the Respect We Deserve”

One would be hard pressed to say New York have had no big wins this season. They were the first to topple LA. They dropped Atlanta at Life Stadium. They have some unequivocally impressive performances.

But what they had been lacking, until this week, was a dominating win. And given their two prior dominated losses, one to NOLA and one to Toronto, their season point differential and try differential were none too impressive. 

RUNY quieted some of those fears on Sunday, dusting Old Glory DC down in Virginia. Having already beaten Old Glory in a close one at home, this looked like a toss up coming into kick off. But it was not long in doubt, as New York had secured a bonus point in the first twenty minutes.

Andy Ellis continues to carry the attack, playing both scrum and fly half for the second straight week (in the absence of injured Dan Hollinshead). Alongside Ben Foden, who added a compelling effort in attack, New York finally looked like a team to fear.

Old Glory were certainly missing Mungo Mason and Jamason Fa’anana-Schultz, staples of their back row when healthy (and when not suspended, as Fa’anana-Schultz currently is for his red card last week). Their defensive prowesses could have helped staunch the bleeding early. But alas, it was not to be for Old Glory on Memorial Day Weekend. 

For RUNY fans, the rounding out of the attack will be an encouraging sign for the squad’s playoff hopes as they cling to second place in an incredibly tight race. 

“We’re Back!”

I suppose one might say that it was really the blowout of NOLA that was the statement game for San Diego. But one week could be a fluke. When San Diego dismantled Houston with ease this weekend, they confirmed their status as playoff contender.

It was never close. San Diego welcomed Paddy Ryan back to the front row. With his presence and their recent successes, San Diego played with a swagger we haven’t seen since their COVID-shortened 2020 campaign. Joe Pietersen is in peak form, and this team hardly looks like the listless mediocrity that wore San Diego kit in the first half.

But they have a big hill to climb. They are still fourth in the west, meaning they need to jump two teams to see post season minutes. They’ll get their chance, with matches against both Utah (in Utah) and Austin (at home) remaining on the schedule. 

Houston, on the other hand, have failed to make much of Nick Boyer’s arrival and success. Playing for the first time with Windsor at #10 beside him, I had suspected a more formidable attack. But San Diego’s control of the game was so thorough that the Boyer and Windsor duo never got a chance. Now at 2-8, Houston officially own the worst record in MLR through 11 weeks. Another disappointing season for the golden cats.

An Offer to Help

On this Memorial Day, I can’t help but mourn the tragic truth that we’ve lost more soldiers to suicide in the Global War on Terror era than we have to the war itself. If you are struggling, please reach out. Stopsoldiersuicide.org.