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Monday Morning Fly Half: Contenders vs Pretenders

With the NFL season now in the rear-view mirror and two entertaining weeks of Major League Rugby 2022 in the books, what better time for some way-too-early takes on the MLR landscape?

While Week 1 had been predictably unpredictable, Week 2 mostly followed suit. That tells me that some of the emerging trends we are seeing may have staying power. Yet at the same time, we have some early bifurcation that clouds our crystal ball. For example, the Gilgronis have looked nigh on unstoppable. But do we put that to their credit or chalk it up to the ill-prepared defenses of the Jackals and Old Glory, who have allowed 80 and 112 points, respectively, through two weeks?

Contenders vs Pretenders

We've got four teams (Austin, San Diego, RATL, Seattle) that are 2-0 and another two (RNY, New England) that are 1-0. Which of these are serious threats for a Shield run and which are merely enjoying a fortunate early season schedule? And are there other teams, like the defending champion Giltinis, that are poised for a run?

Top Contenders: Austin, Seattle, New England, Atlanta

Hard to feel anything but excitement in Round Rock. The Austin Gilgronis have certainly been rocking, having wracked up a +81 point differential after only two weeks. Hanging 100 points in two matches certainly looks impressive, but, as mentioned above, skeptics may want to blame their hapless opponents. Perhaps the defensive side of the ball provides more clarity. Coming off one of the better defensive efforts in 2021, the creamsicle-wall appears intact. For while they held Dallas to only 7 points in Week 1, the 2-0 Legion allowed the Jackals to run in 29 points in a near-loss. That is a comparison sure to give the Austin faithful confidence.

Confidence is rarely lacking in Tukwila, but the 2022 edition of the Seawolves has earned the support of the die-hard fan community thus far. They seem to have a lot of key pieces coming together. Hattingh and Landry have been absolute menaces in the loose. AJ Alatimu has been a vision in the 10 shirt, creating both as an individual attacker/kicker and as a distributor. And the rest of the backline has shown impressive ability, from massive winger Ross Neal to hard-playing Lopeti at center to 7s star Iosefo on the other wing. If there is a concern today, ironically enough based on team history, it is in the set piece. Utah had the better of them in the scrum, and with scrummaging as a platform seeming to take a bigger role in the MLR this year, Seattle need to prove they can hang with the best.

I remain so impressed by the defensive effort I saw from New England Week 1 (they had a bye this week). Spacing, line speed, lane discipline were all nearly perfect for much of the game. Given New England's strength in transition and broken play, a stout defense is a deadly addition to the mix. Where New England fans need to be concerned is in their ability to generate attacking chances without relying on opposition errors. Beaudein Waaka has proven he has some electricity to discharge, but with Dougie Fife facing a suspension there have been few other Freejacks that have a proven ability to generate attack.

Defending their Eastern Conference title, RATL have started the season strong. Showing no worse for the wear after losing respected coach Scott Lawrence, the rattlesnakes pummeled Old Glory before outfighting a feisty NOLA side. Old Glory's meltdown against Austin in Week 2 took a bit of the shine off that first win. Still, with an early 5 table point lead in the East, Atlanta give every indication that they will be in the hunt all year.

Striking Distance: San Diego, Utah, New York, Houston, Los Angeles

The Legion are 2-0, including a strong showing against Utah. That has to say something. But only a +10 point differential, including a win over expansion Dallas, is a bit concerning. Irish Paddy Ryan brings some support in the scrum, where it seems needed. Taking on the 2-0 Seawolves this week, away from Starfire, should prove a good test for both teams.

Utah are 0-2, but I still find them dangerous. They have talent all over the pitch, but they can't continue to rely on late game heroics. A more consistent 80 minute effort is required from the Warriors if they are to really compete at the top level.

New York toppled the SaberCats, who toppled the reigning champs. But execution was sloppy, and they got away with a cheeky, probably illegal play from Pago Haini that denied Houston points at the end of the first half. Those points might have been the difference in the final outcome. They showed some encouraging signs, but will need to tighten up play. 

Houston still boast the most shocking win of the young season. But what I feared after Houston's Week 1 played out in Week 2. They show very little creativity in attack, rarely offering anything beyond one-direction passes through the hands. They've taken advantage of their massive scrum, their physicality, their patience and opposition discipline failures. But the yellow and black will need to find some more savagery with ball in hand if the 'Cats want to wear the crown.

LA lack much of the magic that took the league by storm last year. But, in fairness, they are currently running out their third option at fly half. Matt Giteau's return can't come soon enough. If it brings back the flare that decimated defenses in 2021, all the better. If it doesn't, the Giltinis may suffer a serious championship hangover.

Trouble Brewing: NOLA, Dallas, Toronto, Old Glory

NOLA looked a bit more put together in Week 2, despite falling to RATL. But starting off 0-2, both losses coming at home, is cause for concern. The post-Osborne era in New Orleans has started off bumpy. The Gold need to rebound quickly to stay in the race.

I certainly expected the Jackals to be 0-2. Nevertheless, I did not expect them to play as well as they have. They showed spirit against the Gilgronis before ultimately getting put to the sword. But they gave San Diego a run for their money into the final minutes of the contest. With both losses coming on the road, there is hope for the DJax yet. I expect them to log some wins before the season is out. Not sure I would have said that before. And I don't expect tv graphics makers to mess up their name for much longer.

The Arrows look lost. Their play has been scattered and individualistic. And, though early, I already detect a drop in morale. A big effort will be needed in the coming weeks to flip this down arrow into an up arrow.

Old Glory...eek