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Monday Morning Fly Half: There Can Be Only Four

                                                        

Major League Rugby’s 2021 season has been painfully close. Though the league has never lacked for parity, this year set a new standard. It gave us two thrilling playoff races despite only four post season spots. It gave us heart-stopping finishes (see Utah) and table-spanning upsets (see Old Glory beating Rugby ATL in May).

But with three weeks left, our playoff races are rocketing towards their dramatic climaxes. 

The East

Rugby ATL have been clinging to first place in the east for the last several weeks. At 10-4 (+92 PD), they’ve been getting steadily better as the season progressed. The discovery of Adriaan Carelse as fly half and the recent return of Kurt Coleman to the same position has given them depth in a critical position where they spent the first half of the season lacking. They’ve won eight of their last nine, including season-defining wins over LA Giltinis and NOLA Gold (twice). 

Yet they’ve been unable to gain much breathing room in the standings. Right behind them, Rugby United New York loom. At 9-4 (+13), they’ve played one fewer game than Atlanta. And trailing ATL by 5 table points as they do, one might consider the east a virtual tie. New York’s game against Houston should be reasonably expected to erase that gap in the standings, leaving both teams with two tough contests remaining. For New York, it is a trip to New England and a visit from NOLA. Atlanta also head up to New England, but their other match is out in Utah against the Warriors. With the parity we’ve seen this year, all four of those matches could reasonably go either way. 

In addition, NOLA can’t be counted out. At 8-4-1 (+17), they are a further four table points behind New York. And like New York, they have a game in hand on leader ATL. But with one of their remaining three fixtures being a trip to LA, NOLA’s window is quickly closing. Still, if New York have a few sour performances, NOLA will get their shot as they travel up to the Empire State for the season finale. 

For New England, who sit in fourth, the playoffs are nearly beyond reach. A single win from New York or two from NOLA would mathematically eliminate them. Likewise, a single loss with less than two bonus points would also end it. If New England run the table, beating New York, Atlanta and Toronto, they have a chance. But that’s a big if. 

Old Glory DC and the Toronto Arrows are eliminated

All told, the wild wild east is shaking out. With New England barely treading water in the low probability deep end and NOLA on a shaky looking life raft, two clear favorites for the division have finally emerged. But if NOLA manage to stay alive, the big finish in New York could be the decider for both. 

The West

After another win, this time over reigning (but not 2021) champion Seattle Seawolves, the Giltinis remain firmly in control of the west. Unlike the east, the west division leadership has never really been in question. Throughout the year, it was more common to wonder if LA would lose a single game than to question whether they might not take the #1 seed. 

And, while Utah are only a single win behind them in the standings, LA still have a game in hand on the Warriors. Meaning, barring a drastic change in LA’s performance, they will be the western conference champion this year.

However, the #2 spot has been a toss up. It was a jump ball between Utah and Austin for most of the season, with San Diego making a belated attempt at relevance.

Utah’s win in New York, though, gave them a big leg up. In fact, after dropping two straight in May the Warriors haven’t lost since, going undefeated in June. Their five game win streak includes a beat down of Austin by a 45-24 margin. It also includes three wins at the death. The dramatics have kept Utah ahead of Austin on the table. 

Trailing by five table points, Austin are on the brink of elimination. Considering that one of Austin’s remaining fixtures is a trip to LA, they are likely dealing with a 1-1 record to close out the season. That will most likely not be enough. 

Utah may very well lose out. They host LA and Atlanta, the two first place teams. But if LA also beat Austin, all Utah need to do is collect as many bonus points as Austin from here out. For example, if Austin end the season with a bonus point win over Old Glory, but earn no points at all against LA, they will finish at 51 table points. Exactly where Utah are now. That means even if Utah lose both, all they need is a single bonus point to finish ahead of Austin. Given Utah’s attacking prowess, they are more likely than not to match or exceed Austin in bonus points. 

For that reason, Utah’s win streak has put Austin into a spot where they really need an upset over LA to give them a clear path to the playoffs. But perhaps we shouldn’t count that out. True, LA beat Austin easily in Austin earlier this year. But Austin’s attack is as hot as it’s been all year. If there were a time that Austin might pull off that kind of upset, the time is now. If they can’t, they will need a lot of help to get past the Warriors.