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Monday Morning Fly Half: MLR On the Big Stage


After nearly two years on ice, the USA men's national team returned to action against England at their historic park, Twickenham. This Eagles side was dominated by Major League Rugby standouts, highlighting the growing impact America's young domestic league is having on the international team. In the end, it was an encouraging performance for the Americans, fallling by only 14 points (score of 43-29). With expectations probably closer to a 40 point loss than a 14 point loss, Eagle fans have much to be excited about.  

Mad Hatter

This team had a much different look than the team we saw before COVID-19 pressed pause on the Eagles' program. With only two years before the next Rugby World Cup, Gary Gold is seeking to identify the core of the side that aims to improve on two winless World Cups on the bounce. To that end, Gold gave out a lot of new caps this weekend. Most of them have made a name playing in MLR.

Riekert Hattingh, veteran back row forward all the way from the Seattle Seawolves' season one championship, finally donned the red, white and blue. He had a solid, if unspactacular beginning. Putting his hand up for several carries, Hattingh never quite got going in attack. But he played a gutsy match, doing the work in defense and even helping strip the ball turning an apparent English try into a knock-on. 

Luke Carty, reserve LA Giltini fly half (behind Australian international Matt Giteau) won a surprise start in the absence of injured star #10 AJ MacGinty. He made an admirable debut, opening the scoring with a long penalty goal and registering a solid performance on all fronts. His commitment to defense, including a few one-on-one tackles on rampaging English props, was impressive if a bit frightening with regard to his ongoing health. One cannot replace an AJ MacGinty, who should be back for World Cup qualifiers this fall. But Carty made a strong case to remain the second option going forward.

Utah Warrior Mika Kruse also got his first official cap. Having played against the Maori All Blacks in a match without test status, the 23-year old put in a tremendous shift against his first true international opponent. Kruse has been a talent seeking a home, now on his third different MLR team. By all accounts, he found that home this year in Utah, where he has been a major contributor to the Warriors' efforts. That success carried over to the international stage, where Kruse may well have been the Eagles' best player on the day. He was an effective carrier in outside channels and a sure tackler. His line break led to the highlight try finished by debutante Christian Dyer. As young as he is, Kruse has long been identified as a player with future star potential. That potential was on display this weekend, and that future may be already here.

Also part of that try was Warrior teammate Michael Baska. Baska came on as a reserve scrum half for Ruben de Haas. Though he only logged about ten minutes, he made the most of his shot. Much like he does during the MLR season, Baska showed his instincts in open play. Like a boxer with a killer instinct for a stunned opponent, Baska has a great sense of how to support a line break. His speed, placement and hands made the Dyer try possible. Of particular note was how he played the ball on a short hop after it had been knocked downfield by an English defender, picking it up at pace and making the savvy offload to Dyer. 

Matt Harmon and Christian Dyer also took home their first caps. Harmon makes his living propping for NOLA Gold, and Dyer is a former USA 7s player. As mentioned above, Dyer finished a highlight reel try started by a Mikey Te'o - Mika Kruse generated line break, dotting down in his XV international debut.

Old Hats

But it's not just new faces. Some veteran names stepped up in big ways.

Cam Dolan, NOLA Gold #8 and cap-leader at 51, did his experience credit. In a world where the Eagles can rarely compete with top international sides in the set piece, Dolan was the best lineout option in the game for either team. Though the Eagles at large were outplayed at the ruck, Dolan nabbed an impressive jackal. And, of course, his try envigorated a second half rally.

Dolan would not be the only veteran back rower to touch down. RUNY flanker Hanco Germishuys scored an impressive try from the back of a maul, plowing through English defenders and even fending off teamate Mighty Joe Taufete'e who looked like he had similar designs on crossing the white wash. 

One would be forgiven for thinking Calvin Whiting (another Utah Warrior) was on debut, as his only prior cap came way back in February of 2017. But in his second cap, Whiting showed well. His impact was ultimately limited but his carries were effective and his tackling reliable. 

Ruben de Haas, recently of the Austin Gilgronis, played up from his recent MLR form. He was mostly sharp in attack, even adding a nice little chip kick that found its way to English hands but nevertheless demonstrated his capacity for creating plays. A few mistakes did mar an overall comendable outing. His box kicking left something to be desired, lacking the air time and accuracy to give the Eagle kick chase a chance to challenge for the ball. One of them was charged down for an England try. Also his feeds had a tendency to come in a touch low, at one point leading to a knock from Old Glory's Sosene-Feagai. Still, for a player looking to lock himself in as the #9 of the next generation, it was a performance to build on.

Mikey Te'o, another MLR star who kits up for Utah, had a tougher return to international play. Playing mostly full back for the Warriors, he looked a bit out of sorts at the wing. His flat footed play on a restart opened the door for England's firs try. His positioning and decision making on defense led to two more. He did, however, show the ball carrying prowess for which he is known to Eagles' fans. His pass put Kruse through for the team's fourth try. 

New Era

All told, it was the type of loss which still encourages. This young team, with virtually no training time together and without a test match since October 2019, showed up in one of the world's most difficult venues for visitors and earned some respect. Granted, the England side were missing their Lions tributes. Still, the gap between an English first side and a Lion-depleted side is narrow. This was a strong international side, and the Eagles played them well.

And, by transative property, MLR earned some respect. Though the Eagles have now had the benefit of MLR professional environment players since 2018, this is the first side that struck me as truly stamped by MLR. 

Of the Eagles' four tries, three were scored by MLR players. The spine of the team was predominantly MLR-based, from Sosene-Feagai at hooker, to Dolan, to de Haas, to Carty. Only Marcel Brache at full back hails from a foreign league. A full 12 of 15 starters ply their trade in America's domestic competition. Certainly the road ahead is long and difficult. But this weekend, the Eagles passed an encouraging highway sign. 

Tip of the Cap

Twickenham wasn't the only big stage in play this weekend. Out at the Coliseum in Los Angeles, NOLA Gold delivered a shokcing upset to completely flip the playoff picture in the eastern conference. On the back of Rugby United New York's soggy loss to rival New England, NOLA pounced into second place by handing the Giltinis their first home loss.

Stealing a page directly from Atlanta's playbook, NOLA met LA with line speed and double tackles before the ball could get wide. With the top three teams in the east now 3-0 against LA, one wonders if the chink in the Giltini armor has been found.

Still, the first half was all LA, with NOLA unable to find any footing in attack. Dave Dennis and Nathan Den Hoedt put on a lock clinic, blowing up NOLA's lineout and shutting down their ground game. 

But NOLA turned out for the second half. A game of hard runs finally seemed to wear down the LA defense, and NOLA found space with its wingers. Joeli Tikoisuva gave the Gold a burst of hope when he ripped free from a midfield maul to cross for the Gold's first try. That try was book ended by Hanno Dirksen, who found paydirt in the 78th minute for the winning score. 

With NY against Houston and NOLA against Seattle in Week 17, all signs now point to a decider in the season finale. Strap in for the big finish.