By Liam Poach
The weekend we’ve all been waiting for is here: The beginning of Major League Rugby’s inaugural season. Over the last couple of months, we’ve been given tastes of what’s to come thanks to each team completing a short exhibition schedule, but now, it’s for real.
Ahead of the action this weekend, I’ve thrown together a short preview of all three games, along with my prediction of how it’s going to end.
Houston SaberCats vs NOLA Gold
This game is already starting to look like a pre-cursor to a Southern-Region rivalry within the MLR. Through two meetings between these clubs so far, we have seen a Houston victory and a draw. Now, the Gold will look to even things up in the first matchup where it counts.
In their first bout, Houston cruised to a dominating victory, showing better cohesion and explosiveness in all phases of the game. In the second, NOLA tightened up and showed how well it could perform in the scrum, forcing the SaberCats into their first draw of the exhibition season.
Now, with a handful of friendlies under each of their belts, we’ll get to see what each team looks like at their most competitive level yet. Unfortunately for NOLA, they’ll be missing a player who was shaping up to be a key part of their week-to-week game plan.
Two weeks ago against the Elite, Center Vincent Jobo suffered a tear to his Achilles that required surgery, shutting down his season before it even began. Now, NOLA must find a way to replace the big-play potential Jobo brought every time he touched the ball, as well as his dominatingly physical presence on defense.
Houston, meanwhile, despite having a longer exhibition season than any other team in the league, is coming into this one more healthy than not. While a game-day roster has not been released at the time of writing this article, it can be expected that Houston will see regular game-day stalwarts Sam Windsor (fly-half), Osea Kolinisau (back), Paul Mullen (prop), and Zach Pangelinan (fullback).
However, the real battle I’m looking forward to we can call the ‘Battle of the Nines’. Connor Murphy (SaberCats) and Holden Yungert (Gold) have both been touted as young, talented up and comers at the scrum half positon, with Coach Fitzpatrick noting how the ‘Cats were “very lucky” to have Murphy come over to the States after leaving a very crowded talent pool in England.
Meanwhile, Yungert has been at the center of a rising NOLA squad, with his name now being mentioned more and more in consideration for a National Cap.
“I’m getting really excited for Saturday and the kick off of the MLR season.” Says Yungert. “It should be a good challenge to see how we’ve improved since the last time we faced the ‘Cats.” And when it comes to his counterpart on the Houston side, he only had good things to say, while keeping in mind what his team will have to defend against this coming weekend. “I think you’ve got to respect his efforts keeping Houston on the front foot with his kicking game.”
Murphy, of course, has earned a reputation as a quick-tap specialist, who can also pull off some beautiful box-kicks, even with defenders crashing in around him.
In the end, I say Houston gets one more victory over the crew from the big easy, but it won’t come…you know, easy. While NOLA has the edge in the pack with a front row featuring internationally capped players Hubert Buydens, Eric Howard, and Ben Tarr, I see Houston as having a greater depth in both the scrum and backline, with experienced players who can come off the bench and play at a starting level.
Glendale Raptors vs Austin Elite
This game holds a fair amount of significance in that it will be the first MLR contest to be featured as CBS Sports’ ‘Game of the Week’. And luckily for the fans watching at home, they will be treated to a fair amount of star power when they tune in.
The Austin Elite are pulling out the big guns after a disappointing pre-season, as their opening day roster will feature South African Rugby star Pedrie Wannenburg, as well as USA Rugby legend Todd Clever. Both of whom hold a wealth of experience on the national stage, and are hoping to add an MLR Championship to their already long and accomplished resumes.
The Raptors, meanwhile, are entering this game and season as favorites, sporting their own star studded cast. And, no offense to the aforementioned legends, but these guys are in their prime. Shaun Davies, Ben Landry, and Will Magie all made their MLR debuts a week after bringing home an ARC Championship for the USA, and each one figures to be an import component in this match.
Davies could very well be the best scrum-half in the league, with boatloads of experience in high stakes games, both abroad and domestic. He has the ability to pick his spots well in the passing game, consistently giving his team the best opportunity to move the ball forward.
Landry, meanwhile, is a versatile player who can be effective as a flanker or in the back line, and is a dangerous downhill runner with the ball in his hands. Although, that’s not surprising considering he is a former high school teammate of NFL star J.J Watt. And then, there’s Will Magie, who was solid in his conversion attempts all throughout the pre-season, and shouldn’t leave many points on the board this year for Glendale.
For Austin, although their scrum contains some important pieces (such a USA Eagle Paddy Ryan), it suffered a serious blow this pre-season when it was reported that starting hooker Peter Malcolm would be missing the entirety of 2018 with a knee injury. And so, the backline of the Elite is what will have to shine in this one.
Players such as Roland Suniula and recent acquisition Pat Sullivan figure to be key pieces to their game plan, which should include some more instances of crazy good tight window passing, like we saw in the pre-season. It may not be enough to stave off a red hot-Raptors squad, but it could be enough to keep them in reach.
And who knows? Glendale isn’t exactly flush with depth. If Austin could somehow make a second half stand with their defense, this has a small chance of being an upset. But, still, I’m going with my gut on this one:
San Diego Legion vs Seattle SeaWolves
In a Facebook announcement last night, the SeaWolves let us know that their season opener against San Diego at Star Fire Stadium will be played in front of a sold out crowd, which is great news for rugby here in America. But, just who will come out on top is the question.
Both of these teams are coming into the season as the two biggest relative unknowns. San Diego spent the majority of the off-season in the media shadows before exploding onto the scene with a roster absolutely stacked with Eagles, and are now looking like a dark horse team for a spot in the MLR Finals.
The SeaWolves, on the other hand, have been as active as any club in the league in terms of reaching out to the surrounding area and fan base, with one of their players even throwing out the first pitch at a Mariners game two nights ago. However, the problem with Seattle is that they’ve seen more action off the field than they have on it, having played just one exhibition match against the Prairie Wolfpack, a Canadian D1 club.
Not only will the lack of playing time potentially hurt their chemistry, but the team has suffered further losses due to forces outside of their control. Their original choice for head coach, Tony Healy, was denied a work visa to enter the U.S prior to the start of the season, as was player Connor Weyell. Phil Mack is expected to lead the team in the interim. The team also lost players Garrett Bender and Nick Wallace on top of that.
However, despite all the hoopla about pre-season hype and the many immigration barriers this country presents, each of these teams are coming into the season and match with plenty to offer. Particular players to watch for Seattle include Ray Barkwill (Seattle), a mainstay of the Canadian National team as well as an absolute beast at hooker, and William Rasileka, a former Fijan Sevens player who has put some powerful runs on film.
Then, there’s San Diego, who have a litany of players who could be potential game breakers on Sunday. Ben Cima is one to consider in the backline, possessing the speed and physicality that could spell doom for Seattle, especially inside the 22. Mike Te’o is also another name that should jump out at people. Although he doesn’t possess the same level of physical prowess that Cima might, his ability to turn on the jets in space should be a feather in this squad’s cap come the end of the season.
I’m not saying that I think Seattle will have a bad season, in fact they could be sneaky good. But, the fact remains is that they haven’t had as many opportunities to build chemistry with one another as other squads, and that’s going to hinder them to begin the season. Until they all get on the same level, I think a team like San Diego that possesses so much natural ability will be able to take advantage of wherever the home team comes up short.
San Diego: 24
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Penguin Tundra Sports Blog was created in 2016 by a very bored college student who was obsessed with Rugby and Football. That same college student knew how to write pseudo-intelligently, so what better way to show off than to create a blog. Along your journey though the Tundra's domain, you may come across outlandish opinions, horrible spelling errors, and some shit that is just outright wrong. Well then, you should comment, give my blog more attention, and we will have our day in internet court. Otherwise, I hope you enjoy talking about sports as much as I do.
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