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Monday Morning Fly Half: Seasons of Rugby

We're coming into the summer months in the U.S., but we're reaching the Autumn of Major League Rugby's 2021 season. We're three quarters done, getting ready for the big finish. Teams are gearing up for runs at the Shield. Let's take a look at this week's successes and failures. 

The First Among Seconds

Utah Warriors stole a victory from Rugby United New York in Cochrane Stadium on Saturday. For the third straight week and fourth time this season, Utah have scored a try in the final minutes to give themselves the victory. In this case, the dagger came in the 77th minute, leaving three minutes of breathing room that look comparatively generous considering the San Diego and Seattle wins the previous two weeks.

Both teams entered the contest in second place in their respective conferences. And, as it so happens, they both leave in second place as well. But Utah gave their playoff chances a big boost, picking up the tough road win to stay ahead of Austin. New York's two bonus points dull the pain of the loss, but the Roosters missed out on a chance to seize first place going into the final quarter of their season.

New York had led the entire way until Utah surged over for the game winner. But an early injury to Dylan Fawsitt left RUNY short another key player. Without him and missing contributors in Andy Ellis, Dan Hollinshead, Kara Pryor and Nick Civetta, RUNY couldn't quite put Utah away. More's the pity for New York fans, who would see their team fall to the comeback kids.

One reason Utah were able to stay in striking distance long enough to land the knock out punch was their edge in physicality. They were able to push the New Yorkers around, particularly in the scrum. Olive Kilifi was giving the New York scrum fits, and several scrum penalties flipped the field against RUNY throughout. Lance Williams also put his hand up, particularly in the second half, with both bruising runs and bruising hits that helped turn things Utah's way. By the time Te'o and Kruse-both on the bench presumably to rest before internationals-entered the game, Utah had stolen the momentum. Ultimately, they stole the win as well.

Northern Winter

It may be summer, and a hot one for the Arrows in Atlanta, but a psychological winter must surely have set in. When Toronto pummeled New York 53 - 12 back in April, they were 3-3 with respectable losses to LA, Utah and Atlanta. They had just won behind their second straight 50 point performance. 

Since then, Toronto have gone 1-6. The only win came against Houston, who today own the worst record in Major League Rugby. Losses were wide spread, from New England to San Diego to NOLA twice.

This weekend past was the second of the NOLA losses. And for a time it looked like Toronto might steal one. They took a 7-5 lead into half time. It was an ugly contest, rain soaked and sloppy. But Toronto were giving as much as they were getting. 

Alas, another veteran try by Cam Dolan pouncing on a loose ball and two difficult penalty goals from Damian Stevens were enough to send the Arrows to bed without supper yet again. 

But reinforcements are on the way. Though the playoffs are out of reach, Sam Malcom's return could inspire a resurgence in confidence similar to the proud Seawolves and their continuing gutsiness in the face of playoff elimination. Winter has come for Toronto. But they still have the chance to spread some bad weather around. 

Texan Summer

If things are freezing over in Toronta (by way of Atlanta), they are heating up in Austin. The Gilgronis have been riding their defensive prowess all season, having conceded among the fewest points in the MLR. 

But, locked in a battle with Utah for second place in the west, their attack is heating up at just the right time. In the month of May, Austin scored a grand total of 61 points across four games. Through the first three weeks of June, they've scored 111. They still have one more to play before month end.

Part of this is no doubt the injury recoveries of key attackers- namely Conner Mooneyham and Zinzan Elan-Puttick. Also, some experimenting with the backline has resulted in Tongan Kurt Morath, Utah fly half during their playoff run in MLR 2018, putting on the orange 10 shirt. Along with continued strength in the scrum, Austin are coming into form for the crucial home stretch.

They'll need to, however. With Utah's win in New York, Austin remain five points behind Morath's former team. That is alot of ground to pick up, especially with Utah's attacking flare likely to keep tacking on bonus points even in losses. Though Utah are going to lose their internationals, a bye week means they may only end up missing one game. Austin would need Utah to lose two of the remaining three (and go undefeated themselves) to pick up five table points. With their last two weeks against Atlanta and LA, that is definitely a possibility for Utah. But can Austin run the table? Road trips to San Diego and LA make that a daunting ask.

Austin is playing their best rugby of the season, but with Utah's win this week, it may be just a little too late for them.   

Californian Spring

San Diego gave a noble effort against their Bear Republic rival LA Giltinis. With LA declaring a handful of their leaders out shortly before kick off, an impassable mountain became a manageable climb. In the end, however, the Legion wouldn't quite make the summit.

It was chippy from go, with Paddy Ryan always keen to instigate some friendly extra-cirriculars. With tempers high, San Diego were able to mount a handful of compelling defensive stands, stumping the mighty LA attack.

But when it was all said and done, San Diego just didn't have enough firepower to outshoot the Giltinis. Neither side was ever really ascendent, but LA are so dangerous from all parts of the pitch that even in the best defensive performances some points tend to leak LA's way. 

Losing by the final score of 13-19, San Diego are all but elimated from the playoffs. With fourteen points to make up against Utah, they need the Warriors to get no more than one additional table point for the rest of the season. That isn't going to happen.

But the Legion can take some positives away from their second half run. It will fall short in the end, but then it's time to start getting excited for 2022 in San Diego