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Monday Morning Fly Half: The Wild Wild East


                                                            

In a week where three of our four contests were cross conference showdowns, the east managed to take 3-from-3. In so doing, they ensured that the razor thin margins that have characterized the eastern conference table will persist for another week. And they added to the east’s edge over the west. At least in the aggregate.

East vs West

Head-to-head, the east is out battling the west. So far, through 24 match ups, the east has won 15 (62.5%). Though, in fairness, the difference may arise from the bottom of the western conference’s table. The top three teams in the west, LA Giltinis, Austin Gilgronis and Utah Warriors, have accounted for several big wins against quality east sides. LA is LA. Utah knocked off Toronto at home. Austin beat the top three teams in the east - NOLA in New Orleans and then Atlanta and New York at home in Texas. But outside of those three teams, the west has only one win against the east. San Diego went off against NOLA in an unexpected rout.

The eastern teams have a couple of big wins of their own. None more striking, perhaps, than New York’s win over LA. It remains LA’s only defeat. NOLA also had a nice W, beating Utah this weekend in a skilled performance. But aside from those two, the top eastern teams are fairly lacking in big time wins against the west’s big three. 

With one exception

New England Freejacks, sitting today in last place in the east, have put up some fine results. They shut out Houston 32-0, they beat Utah 22-21, they clobbered San Diego 33-17, then even beat Austin 22-18. With a 4-5 record, they are actually 0-4 against the east. Their only western loss came in Week 1 against LA. Unfortunately for New England, that conference record will be a real drag as they seek to stay in the playoff hunt. 

King of the Hill

With each of Atlanta, New York and New Orleans winning this week, they stay at 1, 2 and 3 in the east, respectively. Old Glory held off Houston in an ugly, rain-soaked Texas brawl. For their efforts they hopped from last place to 3rd. Toronto, with the best point differential in the conference, was idle and dropped to fifth. New England and their struggles in the east leave them in last.

But who has really played the best over the first ten weeks? Different stats will tell you different stories. 

Atlanta lead in table points, with 31. Though their lead is narrow, only two points ahead of New York and NOLA tied at 29. And only 10 ahead of last place New England. To put that in perspective, LA is 14 points ahead of second place Austin the west.

Win-loss record doesn’t provide much extra clarity. Atlanta and New York are both at a solid but not stunning 6-3. New England and Toronto are matched for worst record at 4-5. 

But what do you know, Toronto have a +55 point differential, tied with Atlanta for best in the conference. New York, in second place, have the worst point differential in the conference at -36.

All told, Atlanta are either tied for first or own first in all three categories. They are the clear conference leader after 10 weeks. 

Drilling Down

Let’s take a deeper look at the playoff case for each team.

Atlanta

Rugby ATL have put together an impressive campaign. They swept touring Toronto, who have made Atlanta home for the season. They beat southern rival NOLA by 10. The discovery of Adriaan Carelse has bolstered their performance, which was more mixed early in the season, fielding losses to Old Glory, New York and Austin.

They are a well-coached side that plays excellent technical defense. They’ve yet to give up over 30 points in any match this season, though that may change when LA come to town next week. Their attack has been inconsistent and middling, with 29 tries on the year. Set piece has been solid, but not dominant. 

Case for the playoffs: first place through ten weeks, well-rounded, strong coaching and home venue in southern heat that will be difficult for visitors as the temperatures rise.

Case against the playoffs: brutal remaining schedule, with only three home games left (and one of those is LA). Road trips include NOLA, NY and Utah. 

Key upcoming matches: @NOLA (6/5), @NY (6/13)

New York

The team formerly referred to, unofficially, as the Roosters, have been up and down this year. Resume building wins over LA and Atlanta are marred by ugly losses to Toronto and NOLA, as well as a narrow win in Seattle behind an awful performance. With Dan Hollinshead out indefinitely, the plan for fly half has become a crucial question.

New York have been something of a Jekyll and Hyde in defense. Twice have teams put up 50 on them. Yet they also held powerhouse LA to their lowest score of the season. Attack has been mostly Hyde. They’ve scored under 20 points more times than they’ve scored over 30 (three times under 20 vs twice over 30). A constantly shifting back line behind stellar play from Andy Ellis has kept the attack from finding a grove. 

Case for the playoffs: reasonable remaining schedule, with no more trips off the east coast. Veteran leadership and defense win clutch matches.

Case against the playoffs: telling point differential will come home to roost as they cannot continue to win the close ones. International call ups could rob the team of players at a critical time.

Key upcoming matches: vsATL (6/13), vsNOLA (7/17)

NOLA

Always dangerous, NOLA’s core of players have been together for years at this point. Which is why it is so surprising when they fail to show up. Perhaps not quite as inconsistent as NY, they have still dropped some surprises. Being blown out by San Diego was a shocker. Fullback Carl Meyer’s injury was a set back, as he was a consistent performer and their choice kicker. And Damian Stevens on the bench remains a mystery. 

Still, NOLA are as dangerous as any team in the league. But with only one home game left, they won’t really get the benefit of their warm climate location in the home stretch.

Case for playoffs: history together will continue to push this team through the hot months as their experience sets them apart from other eastern teams. If Stevens gets and keeps the starting scrum half jobs could be an upgrade for the team in attack.

Case against the playoffs: only other home game is hosting rival Atlanta. Road schedule to the end the season will be a tough hill to climb. 

Key upcoming matches: vsATL (6/5), @NY (7/17)

DC

When Jason Robertson and Danny Tusitala are both playing well, this team looks like a Shield contender. But Robertson has been injured and Tusitala hasn’t been able to keep up his early season pace. A suspension from Jamason Fa’anana-Schultz’s red card could throw an additional cog in the works. 

Set piece has always been an issue for DC, though it is improving. It will have to improve fast, though, as most of their eastern counterparts have strong set piece offerings. DC finish their eastern conference schedule on July 4 against Toronto. They may be watching scoreboards for the final two weeks to discover their playoff fate.

Case for the playoffs: return of Jason Robertson from injury has propelled them to playoff contention, and they’re moving up the table. Next five matches all against eastern opponents, giving them the opportunity to close the gap.

Case against the playoffs: too reliant on Robertson/Tusitala, leaving them open to bad losses if one or both are off their game in a given week. Set piece not strong enough to run off a string of victories in the east. Possible Jamason suspension could be a death blow.

Key upcoming matches: vsNY (5/30), @Toronto (7/4)

Toronto

The most mysterious team in the east. Who are these Canadian Atlantans with their under .500 record and tremendous positive point differential? There isn’t a team looking forward to playing Toronto, but nor is their a team that thinks it couldn’t beat Toronto. 

They are a team that, thanks to Covid, has been forced to play from a forward base in Atlanta. That would be tough on any team. And the impact has shown with a slow start to the season. Now, resisting their bid for a comeback, the warm weather looms over the dislocated northern team. 

Furthermore, calls into international camp could dismember this team, who are heavily armed with both Canadian and South American international candidates. 

Case for the playoffs: manageable schedule the rest of the way, playing well and in the process of overcoming slow start.

Case against the playoffs: recent losses to NOLA and ATL put a serious dent in playoff hopes, international call ups could put an end to them.

Key upcoming matches: vsNOLA (6/20), vsNY (6/27)

New England

The team that refuses to win inside its own conference. New England have demonstrated an ability to make vicious use of opposition turnovers. They play great in transition and use big, physical play to generate the mistakes that then produce their transition attack chances.

But only winning 79% of their own scrums is just not acceptable for a team with playoff ambitions. Set piece needs to be energized. And overall, the team struggles to create scoring opportunities without opposition mistakes.

Case for the playoffs: strong record against top western teams show that their losses in the east have been a fluke and the ship will soon right.

Case against the playoffs: haven’t won a single game against a conference opponent yet.

Key upcoming matches: vsTOR (5/29), vsNY (7/3)