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Monday Morning Fly Half: Requiem on a Season

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Major League Rugby's 2021 season reached its conclusion much the way it started - with LA Giltini dominance. In a thoroughly convincing effort, LA dispatched Rugby ATL by the score of 31-17 on Sunday afternoon live on CBS. In so doing, LA became the first team not named Seattle Seawolves to lift the MLR Shield.

Raise Your Glass

In particular, your Giltini glass. LA did what no other regular season champion has managed to do - they completed the conquest. While the outcome was in line with many of LA's results earlier in the year, the methods were quite different.

Firstly, LA had been notorious for their explosive attack bursting out to big leads in the opening 20 minutes. It seemed that when those first twenty minutes were contained, LA would go on to struggle for the remainder. Not so on Sunday, when they went into the first water break locked up with Atlanta at 3-3. Immediately following, however, Matt Giteau sparked two John Ryberg tries within a few mintues' time. In a flash it was 15-3 in the Giltinis' favor. The attack would continue to work from there, eventually putting up 31. That ties New York and Utah for most points scored against Atlanta this season. And rather than coming in the opening 20, they came in the final 60.

Secondly, LA won the point of contact. Whereas we'd seen teams like New York and even Atlanta in their earlier meeting use physicality and aggressiveness at the breakdown to disrupt the LA attack, it was LA doing the disrupting in the final. They picked their moments well, but a strange carelessness at Atlanta's ruck allowed LA to create several turnovers. And moreso than even that, it produced an entirely different posture from which LA were able to regain their early season attacking form. When New York beat LA back in May, they took on the roll of bullies. Sunday night, LA took it back. They disloged the ball with big hits, they slowed play or turned the ball over with counter rucks, and they held their own in the set piece.

But it wasn't all new. As he has been all season, Matt Giteau was brilliant. Though Ryberg touched both of LA's first two tries down, it was Giteau who created the chances. On the first, it was his line break and nifty offload that put Ryberg through untouched. It was a fantastic support line, but it relied on magic from the fly half to open up the defense. The second try began with Giteau recognizing an offside advantage and slashing a deadly line drive of a cross field kick. A few well-timed passes later, Ryberg was over the whitewash again. Atlanta would never recover.

For their part, the Rattlers played a brave if unspectacular match. For the first quarter of the contest, things were mostly following their script. A savage defensive battle was keeping scoring low, and in that battle Atlanta had the edge. They scored the first points. But once Ryberg had registered his brace, Rugby ATL found themsleves suddenly in catch-up mode. That is not a mode suited to their skill set.

For much of the game, they sought to gain territory from the boot. But it was done in a thoughtless way, often just lobbing high balls without givng much effort to carrying or weighing the counter-attack chance it would create. LA began a bit sloppy taking the high balls, giving Atlanta a temporary advantage. But by the end of the first half, LA had settled in and was handling the kicks fine. Yet Atlanta continued to press it, sending ball after ball skyward. One particularly confusing sequence had Kurt Coleman looking like he might kick from hand, only to whip a pass over to Bautista Ezcurra for what seemed like a scripted attack. But instead, Ezcurra lofted an easily-played kick into LA hands. The game, and especially the second half, proceeded mostly in that manner.

A nice looking maul try near the end of the first half temporarily brought the score back within a five margin for Atlanta. Coming out for the second half, though, they never really challenged again. Whatever Scott Lawrence had in his bag of tricks, it wasn't a big comeback against a tough defense like LA.

Not quite living up to the drama of the semi-finals, it was a nonetheless enjoyable contest between two very talented sides. In the end, though, LA ran away with it. The Shield will reside in Los Angeles until next season.


It was a hell of a season. Coast to coast, in the middle of a pandemic, Major League Rugby managed to play every regular season game and needed only the slightest schedule chicanery to do it. As Comissioner Killebrew put it during the half time show, MLR was 99-0 against Covid. That is something about which the league should rightfully be proud.

But beyond the administrative acheivement, MLR continued to deliver the captivating experience that has defined its first four years (and 3.5 seasons). When considering the health of a sporting league, there are a handful of things for which the observer should look.

Parity - MLR has been a pinnacle of parity. The vast majority of match ups in this 12-team league were of uncertain outcome. Early in the season, every week featured shocking "upsets." In our semi-finals, both winners had earlier lost to their foes in the regular season. Our champion also lost to our runner-up in their earlier meeting. This young league, despite drawing from local rugby pools of disparate circumstance and international pools of uncertain and varried interest, manages to put a skillful and fiercely competitive product out to fans time and time again. 

Enterainment Quality - matches have to be more than just close scores. The spectacle itself must be entertaining. And MLR has acheived that with admirable efficiency for such a young league in such a difficult market. Particularly with regard to MLR's first year in 2018, when the product on the pitch looked only slightly better than existing club matches, the talent and skill level have risen considerably. That is especially important for the potential local fan, who does not otherwise watch rugby and won't be comparing it to Premiership matches. If they are enterained by this new experience called rugby, the league has the chance to win a new fan. And speaking of locals...

Local Support - if this game is going to grow, it needs to do more than draw existing rugby fans out to fixtures. It needs to convert new fans. Historically, Seattle seemed to be the only city demonstrating unequivocal success in that endeavor. New Orleans and Utah had produced mixed but encouraging results. However this season, anecdotally at least, crowd size and enthusiasm seemed to have taken a step up across the board. Academies continue to emerge and grow. In the long-run, the growth of local support will be the marker of success or failure as a matter of collective national consciousness. We await eagerly any attendance data or TV ratings informaiton to inform the league's performance, but based on the eye test alone I liked what I saw this year. 

Institutional Financial Support - the biggest questionmark remains the existince and/or interest from commercial partners and potential investors. A product can be supremely entertaining, but if it doesn't make money, it will not long survive. In theory, parity, enterainment quality and local support will combine to create a dynamic into which institutions will want to invest. We have begun to see some partnership announcements (notably the American Airlines partnership). But when the demand for such arrangments becomes widespread, we can take comfort knowing that the league has reached a safer level of financial maturity. 

Closing Thoughts

After 20 weeks, we say goodbye to MLR 2021. In 2018, when this was just starting, we could only hope that we'd still be talking about Major League Rugby four years on. For all its successes and failures, I think we can safely say that not only is MLR still here, but that it gets better every season. It has survived a pandemic. It has battled the indifference of an American public that still largely ignores rugby. It has managed changes of ownership, expansion teams and team withdrawals. And it has become stronger for it. 

It is a long off-season, but we can look forward to MLR 2022 knowing that we can count on another year of quality entertainment. And we can hope the word continues to spread, growing the game in places it has long struggled to grow.

Programming Note

Regular readers - thank you so much for the time you've spent with me. For better or worse, Monday Morning Fly Half successfully delivered a new column every Monday morning throughout the season. As always, it is my hope that I've provided more than just a factual or statistical recap of the week's action. I always strive to not only report on American rugby, but to help spark thoughtful conversation about it. 

But now, as American rugby goes into a quiet period, Monday Morning Fly Half will likewise enter the off-season. I expect to be back for qualifiers in the Fall, and potentially a random column here or there. But until then, see you all on the electrons of social media. You can always find me @MMFlyhalf on Twitter. 

Congratulations to the LA Giltinis and all of Major League Rugby on the 2021 season