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Monday Morning Fly Half: Contenders vs Pretenders

                                                            

In an enteraining Week 12 for Major League Rugby, each contest featured at least one team looking to prove its Shield contender status. Some succeeded, some did not. 

Gold v Rugby ATL

In the match of the weekend, first place Rugby ATL traveled down to face southern rival NOLA Gold. Coming off an inspirational win against the LA Gilintis, Atlanta were looking to avoid the malaise that had struck New York and Austin after their respective big defensive efforts (Austin in a loss) against LA. They did enough to outlast NOLA in a narrow 8-7 victory.

Despite leaving with the victory, one might argue that they failed to avoid the post-LA hangover. The Carelse to Ezcurra spark that had ignited the ATL attack over their recent run of form was mostly absent. Lineout win rate was horrific, at less than 40% for the Rattlers. A mental lapse behind the ruck from Duncan Van Schalkwyk allowed NOLA their only points, as Cam Dolan politley stepped around the breakdown to secure the ball deemed "out" by the referee and nudge it into the turf for a try.

Still, Atlanta won. And that says something. Going down to NOLA for a regional rivalry and important eastern conference match, playing as lacklustrely as they played, and leaving victoriuous is one mark of a real contender. They found a way to win when not playing especially well in a hostile environment against a strong side. That should give Atlanta fans some confidence.

The other side of that coin, though, is NOLA's loss. NOLA were also seeking to prove their contender status. Losing their last home game, being virtually blanked on attack aside from the fluky Dolan mishap try, gaining no ground on idle New York...those ingredients don't make for a good gumbo.

The NOLA attack was outmatched by the ATL defense - simple as that. Mark O'Keeffe's try saving tackle, body slamming the NOLA runner backwards when a NOLA try looked imminent, was emblamatic of a Gold offense that would continue to threaten but never deliver. Dropping behind New England in the standings and facing six road games to finisht the season, the window for NOLA is beginning to close.

Conclusion: ATL - contender; NOLA - pretender

Freejacks v Old Glory

An east coast battle between two teams looking to differentiate themselves. Two teams which had both, at one time or another, seen the bottom of the table in the east. Both had also shown signs of excellence, flashes of brilliance. And both badly needed a win to keep pace in the standings.

In an untidy match, New England was the perpetual leader. But they could never quite put Old Glory away. They played their game, disrupting DC and causing mistakes, then leveraging those mistakes into points. Case in point, the intercept try for Beaudein Waaka would end up representing more than the margin of victory for New England.

DC really struggled under the New England pressure. Until the end of the second half, they could not sustain any stretch of effective play with ball in hand. And they didn't maximize their advantages. Though they had the edge in kicking meters (506 vs 373), they didn't use tactical kicking enough. For a New England team that hasn't shown an ability to drive down the pitch from their own end, one would have expected Jason Robertson to bury New England back in their own end repeatedly. It didn't really happen. In fact, New England won the territory battle (55% vs 45%). That is a failure of game strategy for DC.

And yet, DC was moments from victory. On the final play, long after the 80 minute mark, Jason Robertson broke off a 50 meter plus scramble, finally being tackled near the New England 5 meter line. He was not held in the tackle and could have probably gotten to his feet and brought the winning try home. Instead he endeavored a pop pass from the turf to Danny Tusitala who was coming on at speed. It was an easy pass to make and a sure try for Tusitala. But they didn't make it. Robertson lofted it a bit too high and Tusitala knocked it on, ending the game. It may have also ended their playoff run.

But New Englad should be worried about how close they came to throwing that game away. Chasing New  York, who just dusted Old Glory 46-10 in DC last weekend, a narrow win at home is not exactly inspiring for the Freejacks. They escaped with one here, but they didn't make me a believer. Granted, I earlier gave credit to Atlanta for winning when not playing well. But there is a difference when winning is against the #3 team on the road in NOLA and "not playing well" still involves giving up 0 points on defense. For New England, facing a struggling DC side, this effort just wasn't enough.

Conclusion: NE - pretender; DC - pretender 

Arrows v Legion

Both of these sides, struggling to climb their respective tables, needed a win. Good on San Diego, then who continued their resurgence. Less good for Toronto, who competed for the full 80 but seemed to lose energy, spirit or both by the end, letting San Diego off the hook.

Neither side looked exceptional. Early on, both sides traded penalty goals and drop goals to tick over the scoreboard. The scoring doors would swing open a bit as the game progressed, though moreso from lapsing defensive concentration than improving attacking play.

San Diego, with the lead and the ball in their territory, oddly decided to play on beyond the 40 minute mark in the first half. When they failed to kick the ball into touch, Toronto would eventually get it back and score a try going into the shed. It was a big momentum grab for Toronto which San Diego should never have allowed. But other than that bad decision, San Diego mostly outplayed the Arrows. The return of Josh Furno, who scored a brace in this one, has been a quiet but crucial element in San Diego's return to form. Along with Paddy Ryan, the veteran presences back in the pack seem to have settled the team down enough to let Joe Pietersen work his magic.

Toronto seem to fade more and more as each week passes. The final San Diego try in this one was hardly earned. Rather, the Toronto defense seemed to just tire and capitulate. It may well be the weather, or the extended stay in Atlanta as "home," but the life seems to be draining from the white and blue. With the international call ups coming, the playoffs would be a miracle.

Conclusion: SD - contender; TOR - pretender

SaberCats v Gilgronis

The Texas cup will stay in Austin. For the second time this year, the Gilgronis easily dispatched their lone star brethern. At least this time the SaberCats got on the board. Losing 26-0 in the first face-off, this 28-9 result had a similar feel.

The Austin defense is still formidable. It was the difference here. Statistically, both teams had similar efforts. Austin had 593 meters carried to 590 for Houston. Kick meters were 392 for Austin vs 365 for Houston. Houston had the edge in possession, but Austin in territory. The difference? 124 tackles vs 91. Austin refused to break under Houston pressure, and Houston couldn't hold serve. 

And in the end, Austin did find some of its scoring touch. The return of Conner Mooneyham, paired with Kurt Morath, Zinzan Elan-Puttick and Bryce Campbell, did give some life to the Austin attack that had been quiet in Mooneyham's absence. As Reuben de Haas gets integrated and acclimated, this attack may yet come into form at just the right time to threaten a Shield run.

Conclusion: AUS - contender

Sea Wolves vs Warriors

Losing two to the team at the bottom of the table is, naturally, not a good look. But it was almost the look Utah would have had heading into the home stretch if not for the victory at the death in Starfire.

It is tempting to call this a bad performance for Utah, but I am not so sure. The team wearing green and blue on Sunday night was not the same Seattle that resides in the standings cellar. They played with a new energy, in front of a faithful home crowd. They brought defensive pressure and attacking creativity all night.

Also, it was raining for most of the match. Those elements combined and the stage was set for a Utah upset loss. The Warriors have a habit of execution failure in tight spots. Nearly every team has a habit of execution failure in rainy spots. Never a defensive powerhouse, Utah wins by out attacking their opponents. That is a challenge when attack is muted by rain. The script was written for a day when defensive prowess and home team energy could win in the mud.

But, unlike in some previous fixtures this year, Utah did not crumble. They overcame the weather, overcame the impassioned Seattle defense, overcame their own history of balking in big spots. The very last sequence of the game saw Utah complete two lineout throws to the far pod, no easy task in MLR this year and certainly not a sure thing on a rainy night. They then successfully ran a goal line attack, something we've seen a number of teams fail to do in the final minutes over the last few weeks. They scored and they completed the conversion for the win. In a way it was reminscent of a similar last moment victory over Old Glory. 

A look at the standings and the final score would give one the sense that this was a disappointing performance for the Warriors. In some ways, it was. But what I really took from this one is a certain maturation that enabled Utah to execute for the win under pressure. And that may be the most important thing this team needed to show.

Conclusion: UT - contender