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Monday Morning Fly Half: Shield Preview

Two thrilling semi-finals are in the books, and we have our Shield finalists. Rugby ATL outlasted Rugby United New York 10-9 in a penalty-ridden, defensive showdown.  LA Giltinis had a comeback win at home to send off Utah Warriors 17-13. Next up, Atlanta will face LA for the big hardware.

These teams met once before, when Atlanta won 17-12 at home. But this is finals footy, and it’s anyone’s contest. 

Shield Final Preview


After another mundane offensive performance, LA are far from the scoring juggernaut that we saw early in the season. Even Utah, not known for their defense, were able to slow LA far more than I was expecting. 

Still, I’m not quite prepared to say that they don’t have the attacking edge over Atlanta. They do own dominant leads in most offensive categories. I won't rehash all the stats I quoted last week, but suffice it to say the stats page is exploding with Giltini strength. And while their switch game is old news and defenses have learned not to let them play fast at the ruck, they remain dangerous on every touch. They have just so much talent in that back line. International stars like Giteau, van der Merwe and Ashley-Cooper are potent enough. But some relative unknowns add to the threat. Goddard is still the best attacking scrum half from the ruck. And young American Ryan James has looked electric in limited time.

Atlanta, despite having left as victors on Saturday night, did so without much attack to speak of. One wonders where Adriaan Carelse can be found. Kurt Coleman’s entry late in the game actually added some life to the toothless Atlanta attack, which had been without many ideas prior to his appearance. If not for NY’s stunning penalty count, it’s not clear Atlanta were going to score at all. They can attack better, and humidity may have played a role in the bevy of handling errors. But LA is a stout defending side and Rattler fans may rightly worry that Atlanta are unable to score in the finals.

Edge: LA


They say defense wins championships. Major League Rugby’s 2021 season would agree, as we have the two best defenses in the finals. LA once again own the stats, having conceded the fewest points. But stats don’t tell complete stories. 

Given that LA had two games each against the likes of Houston and Seattle, and realizing that they hold the point concession lead by a mere 25 points, I continue to believe Atlanta have the best defense in the league. It really showed this weekend, as break-neck line speed and beast mode tackling disrupted everything RUNY tried to do. The orange and blue looked borderline frightened every time they recycled a ball in the face of a Rugby ATL defensive line in its shape. They tended to move backward more than forward.

But LA are not to be overlooked. They held the second highest scoring team to only 13 points this weekend. Dave Dennis has quietly had a tremendous season surrounded by the star power of his teammates. Given what he does defensively in the lineout, he may give Atlanta fits in the final. And LA's deadly counter-attack is a form of defense in itself, as it limits how much opposition can kick for territory. Knowing how much of Atlanta's game relies on such kicks, that could be a problem. 

Nevertheless, the eye test tells me that Atlanta are the better defenders. Their ability to get into shape after each tackle and fire forward on each play is remarkable and pleasing to watch. And we've seen LA's attack crumble under that sort of pressure. 

Edge: Atlanta

Set Piece

LA’s weakest attribute is their inconsistent set piece. Even when Dave Dennis is up in the air disrupting lineouts on opposition throws, he is still losing his own. The Giltinis lost several of their own lineouts this weekend and they will be facing a tougher test in Atlanta’s lock pair in the finals. 

Likewise, their 87% scrum win percentage is second worst in the league. In contrast, Atlanta are winning 94% of their scrums. That’s good for second best. 

If there is anywhere Atlanta have the clear edge, it’s the set piece.

Edge: Atlanta

Your Next Champion

I think we can draw a couple of interesting conclusions from the semi finals. 

First, the pressure of finals footy brought out the best defensive efforts from all. Even Utah, who had been a below average defense all year, were able to hold LA scoreless for almost the entire first half. That suggests to me that we are in store for the mother of all defensive battles in the Shield final. If the occasion of the semis brought out this kind of effort, I can only imagine what the finals will bring.

Secondly, we saw both contests this weekend were heavy tactical battles. Even LA, who by all rights should have been happy to carry the ball against Utah’s heretofore porous defense, seemed eager to use tactical kicking and set piece to advance the ball. And once again, I expect that effect to be magnified in the finals. I think we will see a lot of tactical kicking, a lot of lineouts and a lot of mauls.

For those reasons, I am tipping Atlanta as your next Shield winner. In a defensive battle, there is no team I put ahead of the Rattlers. And I think a tactical battle minimizes LA’s biggest strength - their attacking with ball in hand. The style of the semi finals, which I assume will continue into the finals, lends itself to an Atlanta championship. And combined with Atlanta’s win over LA earlier in the season, I am calling them to hoist the Shield this weekend.

Pick: Atlanta by 4