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Monday Morning Fly Half: Post Season Feel

                                                         

Week 13 saw all teams back in action on a full slate of six games. With the season nearly three quarters complete, some of these contests are beginning to take on a post season feel. That was especially so for the Utah v San Diego and RUNY v RATL fixtures, which both lived up to the hype in terms of intensity and excitement. 

Cardiac Warriors Survive Again

The Utah Warriors have seven wins. Four of those have come at the death. In Week 1 they outlasted Austin, who missed a penalty chance for the win with time expiring. In early May, they beat Old Glory on a try at the death when Mika Kruse dotted down in the extra time. Last week, they stunned a resilient Seattle side with a try at the death for the comeback victory. Yet none of these dramatic victories can match Utah's Saturday evening triumph over western conference rival San Diego. 

Trailing 41-24 deep into the second half, one might have easily consigned Utah to the loser's column for the week. But it would not be so. The red and black stormed back and scored two tries in the final ten minutes, including the winner at the death by James Vaifale.

It had been a bruising evening. With both sides hungry for the win in the ever-tightening race for #2 in the west, there was no shortage of physicality. Bone crunching hit after bone crunching hit left neither side in firm control of the point of contact. Rather, both teams generated compelling attack runs while alternating between impressive stops and defensive miscues. 

In the end, the win is a big leg up for Utah. They stay five points ahead of Austin, who secured a bonus point in a thorough routing of Toronto. They keep San Diego at bay, who are now 10 points shy of Utah on the table rather than the two points which would have seperated the teams had San Diego held on. 

Still, with a difficult remaining schedule ahead, Utah is far from a lock for the playoffs. Despite the gutsy win, this wasn't one of their best performances. They relied too heavily on Mikey Te'o to create opportunities, and at times seemed to just lob him the ball and sit back waiting for a magic show. If they want to survive the final quarter season, they'll need to keep their attack a little more diverse than that. 

The New York Guinea Fowl

Once upon a time, the Rugby United New York boys were affectionately called "Roosters." While that name seems to have dropped out of favor somewhat under the team's new ownership, it wouldn't have been entirelty out of place this weekend. Because, it seems, chickens are one type of bird which is known to eat snakes. In fact, guinea fowl (a bird in the chicken family) specialize in using coordinated action to take down intruding snakes. 

It was thus for the New York Guinea Fowl, who bested the intruding Rugby ATL Rattlers this weekend. That makes it a perfect 3-0 against Atlanta in Major League Rugby history, dating back to last year.

The win was signficiant for New York, who climb up within two points of RATL in the standings. With a game in hand against their southern foes, that is a good place to be. 

It was quite a spectacle. Both sides are capable of bringing intense defensive pressure, as demonstrated by their respective wins over western leader LA. They brough it on Sunday afternoon, giving the opposing attacks little room to operate. In the end, it came down to who would capitalize more efficiently on limited scoring windows.

Thanks in part to Harry Bennett's best game at RUNY, that team was in orange and blue. Bennett, filling in for injured Dan Hollinshead, was an effective and versatile contributor. He showed enough daring with ball in hand to draw in defenders. He distribtued effectively. He kicked from hand with power. He even mixed it up on some key defensive plays. 

In fact, New York's bench depth was on dsiaply all game. Some of the key players, like Bennett, flanker Bonasso and winger Mattina, weren't starters earlier in the year. And then some subs, including Connor McManus, Leonard Williams and Hanco Germishuys, were able to come in and be difference-makers. 

They will need that depth. Injuries to Andy Ellis and Kara Pryor threaten to derail RUNY's momentum. Especially with USA call-ups coming at the end of the month, the absence of two key players not currently making international appearances could be a crucial liability going into the home stretch.

The Hunt

So where does that leave us? All of our playoff contenders have either four or five games remaining. That means we can really start to hone in on each team's odds of seeing post season action.

In the west, LA have all but locked up first place. Utah, Austin and San Diego are vying for the last western playoff invitation. Of those three, Austin have the easiest remaining schedule. Their upcoming opponents (SEA, SD, LA, DC) have a combined winning percentage of only 44%. That is lowest of the trio. San Diego's schedule is technically a little tougher, with opposing win percentage of 49% (LA, AUS, SEA, DC). But a careful look tells you that those schedules are identical, aside from the fact that San Diego have Austin's record in the formula and Austin have San Diego's. 

Utah have by far the tougher schedule, with opposition win percentage of 59% (NY, HOU, ATL, LA). Given that schedule difference and only a five point edge over Austin, I continue to believe Austin have the best chance of escaping the west with the last playoff spot.

The east is more muddled still. All of Atlanta, New York, New England and NOLA stand reasonable chances of making the eastern conference playoffs. After Week 13, Atlanta lead the group with 41 table points. New York are on their heels at 39, and New England and NOLA are even at 34.

But New York and NOLA have an extra game to play, which means more total points on offer. Unfortunately for the chasing Freejacks and Gold, they also have the harder schedules. New England opposition is winning at a dauting 58% rate (NOLA, NY, TOR, ATL). NOLA aren't much better, going up against an opposition win percentage of 53% (TOR, NE, LA, SEA, NY).

Conversely, RUNY and RATL have fairly easy schedules remaining. RUNY opposition is winning at a 45% rate (UT, TOR, NE, HOU, NOLA) and ATL opposition is winning at a 43% rate (HOU, DC, UT, NE).

With those figures in mind, as of today I'm liking New York and Atlanta to hold onto their playoff berths. 

Orange is the New Back

Don't tell me front row players aren't athletes. This weekend, two orange-clad front rowers did their best back impressions, intercepting passes for tries. First LaRome White, for Austin, took back a Toronto pass roughly 70 meters for a breakaway try.

Then, RUNY's James Rochford picked one off from Adriaan Carelse for a critical try late in the New York game. 

If props keep flexing with that kind of speed we may need to see some wingers jump into the scrum.