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Monday Morning Fly Half: LA Kings

For the most part, Week 13 went as expected. In fact, the team higher on the table won each contest, and none were long in serious doubt. But we did have a clash between our two second place teams - Atlanta from the East and LA from the West - which has me officially wondering if LA are once again the team to beat.

Serpentine Speed Bump

Both Atlanta and LA like to play wide. But Atlanta remain the fastest team in the league's 2022 campaign. Usually, that is to their advantage. Not many teams can adjust to their attack speed and counter their defensive speed. LA, however, put on a clinic dealing with the pace of the Snakes, walloping them 31-19. 

Firstly, they largely avoided being beat out wide. Aside from one of Atlanta's late tries (when they had a two man advantage), LA always seemed to scramble a defender wide enough to have a play on the Atlanta ball carrier. On the flip side, when LA attacked wide they frequently found themselves with a numbers advantage they could exploit for a line break. 

The difference is that LA were at least threatening to attack in the narrow channels. Even if it's just a step, or a head fake, or a dummy runner - LA forced Atlanta to devote defensive attention to the midfield which opened up the wide attack. Atlanta, on the other hand, seemed driven to get the ball wide and throw it around. That let LA scramble with comfort, able to effectively abandon the midfield to focus on the edges.

Secondly, when the ball did get into space, LA executed where Atlanta did not. It seemed to me this had a lot to do with physicality. Those Atlanta attackers in space were not only being brought down by their Giltini counterparts, they were going down hard. The opening few minutes were a useful case study. Atlanta, on the first lineout of the game, ran a very slick set piece attack that brought the ball wide and looked like it might break through. LA, however, were able to open field tackle so effectively that it stopped Atlanta momentum dead. Only a few minutes later, Jonathan Ryberg found himself out wide and he trucked right through the Atlanta defense for the game's first try. His chance had been less promising than Atlanta's earlier, but the LA defense was able to make the key tackles. Atlanta's fell short.

Lastly, LA were much more efficient with the ball. They had a degree of tactical patience with ball in hand, letting openings develop and then exploiting them. Atlanta, conversely, seemed to mechanically swing it wide, whether it was advantageous or not, and then proceed to make any number of offloads or quick flips to no obvious purpose beyond their own fatigue. The fatigue, combined with LA's physicality, likely led to the horrific mismatch in handling errors (16 for Atlanta to 3 for LA).

In the end it was as an overwhelming victory for the visiting LA side. Only when LA went down two men late in the game did Atlanta look like they might have the measure of their guests. Prior to that point it was 31-5 to LA, and that score probably better represents what we saw on the pitch than the 31-19 FT.

Happy Hour

It's not the only recent impressive win for LA. In fact, the last time they lost was March 13th, to Utah. Since then, they're on a 6-game win streak that includes a 31-12 run over Seattle and a 43-0 dismemberment of Rugby New York. While we must acknowledge that there is a longer win streak currently residing in New England, we should also observe that it was the very same Giltinis who last shackled the Freejacks on February 27th. 

After the Utah loss, LA were an uninspiring 2-3. The defending champs seemed entirely out of sorts and sorely missing the leadership of Matt Giteau at 10. This week, a last minute change saw Harrison Goddard (wearing the 9 shirt) step into fly half. Which is to say, they still seem unsettled at the position. 

They're overcoming it, though, by adapting a style somewhat different from last year's championship run. They aren't overwhelming defenses with speed and variety of look. Instead, they're playing with patience and efficiency. Still showing many looks, for sure, but they're no longer relying on vast menu of options to immobilize the defense. They're simply probing here, probing there, finding a weak spot and then coming in force to that weak spot until it's been overrun.

The Road Ahead

But LA are still not even at the top of their division, despite their recent run of form. That honor belongs to their Austinian cousins, the Gilgronis. But the honor may not extend for much longer. Next week, the Gilgronis head west to take on the Giltinis in LA. A win by LA could put them into a virtual tie (as Austin have a game in hand on LA).

But regardless of what happens against Austin, LA have a pretty appetizing run of matches to end the season. They travel to San Diego, Dallas and Utah (who are a combined 8-27) before finishing up at home against a Seattle team they already sent off once. 

In fairness, Austin's schedule is similarly easy for the remainder of the season. So the king of the west may very well be decided May 8th at the Coliseum. But the way LA are playing right now, I wouldn't bet against them.