By Liam Poach
The first wave of MLR’s opening weekend was upon last night, and delivered with it a satisfyingly fresh start for professional rugby in America. In Houston, the SaberCats were upset by the NOLA Gold 36-25, while the Glendale Raptors won their home opener against the visiting Austin Elite, 41-26.
NOLA Upsets Houston
The SaberCats’ introduction to Dyer Stadium didn’t exactly go as planned last night, as the NOLA Gold came through in evening up the score when it comes to matches played against Houston. They have now lost once, tied once, and won once. However, luckily for them, that first win came at a time where it actually counts.
Houston had gone into halftime with a 12-10 lead, but the team’s habit of falling off in the second half ended up rearing its ugly head again. In the end, a JP Eloff penalty kick would put them down by more than ten points with only three minutes to go in the game, effectively ending the match for the SaberCats along with any hope a comeback.
The game started off on pretty even footing, with neither side able to score any points for fifteen plus minutes. Frustratingly enough, Houston in that time found themselves in range not once, but twice for penalty kicks, but Coach Fitzpatrick opted to attack the NOLA defense for a chance at the try zone.
Eventually, Houston’s aggressive attack paid off when Osea Kolinisau got off a nice quick-tap near the goal line, splitting through NOLA’s defense for a try. However, the two missed opportunities for points in that first half may have had a hand in putting Houston in the awkward second half position that they found themselves in.
There were definitely some positives for the home team last night, but they all seemed to show themselves in the mid to late first half before nearly disappearing in the second. We saw Josua Vici be his usual self, making big tackles and pulling off freakish runs while at one point barreling through six defenders for a try (two total in the evening). He and Connor Mills also seemed to work particularly well together, but, it wasn’t a lack of talent that ultimately killed the ‘Cats tonight, it was an inability to sustain offense.
NOLA, meanwhile, played perhaps their best game ever as a squad yesterday, showing a ferocious intensity that this time had Houston on their back foot for most of the game. Scrumhalf Holden Yungert deserves a ton of credit for being quick with the ball, as well as not being afraid to take defenders (or Connor Murphy) head on with the ball himself.
While Yungert’s game looked good, it was made even better with the fact that NOLA (save for the usual miscues you expect in a game) looked pretty good in both the scrum and backline. Players like Joeli Tikoisuva and JP Eloff definitely moved and carried the ball efficiently on the outside, aided by a surprisingly effective offensive attack with the forwards, with players such as Sebastian Kalm and Matt Hughston able to pound it up the middle, forcing Houston to commit more players to tackles than they would have liked.
If Houston wants to improve moving forward, they need to find a way to sustain their offensive attack through 80 minutes the way did through the first 40 of this match, because by the middle of the second half they started to seem oddly robotic. Whether that’s an effect of the long exhibition season they just got through, who knows? But either way, I’m sure Coach Fitz won’t be accepting anything similar from his squad from here on out.
Glendale Defeats Austin
An expected result, but it definitely didn’t come about the way many people thought it would. The Austin Elite showed their moxie when it came to taking on what many consider to be the top club in Major League Rugby, and now have to be taken seriously as a legitimate contender in the early season.
First, let’s start off by acknowledging what fans of teams who lose to Glendale always point out. “Look at all the Eagles on their team!” And sure, those guys were pretty effective. John Quill got Man of the Match Honors for a spectacular day, while Ben Landry got himself some try-zone points while ripping through Austin-arm tackles all day (before a red card killed that buzz). While Shaun Davies was, well, he’s Shaun Davies. Bruh was on point.
However, had it not been for an end of first half and early second half opening of the flood gates for Glendale, this could have gone the other…err...maybe would have at least been closer. But, still, if you were watching, you probably noticed there were more than a handful of possessions that saw Austin make the most out of their opportunities.
The Elite got out to an early 7-0 lead in the first with a good couple of passing phases that opened room on the outside. This turned out to be a pretty good formula going forward, as Austin’s ability to methodically move it up the middle against the Raptors’ usually stout defense opened up some holes for their backline to take advantage of.
Probably most impressive of all for the Elite was the play of Hanco Germishuys, a flanker who on a plethora of occasions was able to turn on the jets, tearing holes through the Glendale defense. He came through with two tries of his own in the game, while creating plenty of opportunities for his own teammates.
Despite the improved play, Austin still came up with the loss for a number of reasons, mainly due to trouble defending the middle of the field. When Glendale had room to work with, they were able to use their finesse in the passing game to catch Elite defenders out of position, creating massive holes to run through.
The near comeback by Austin was also helped along by the fact that Glendale couldn’t seem to keep its players out of the sin bin. They saw not one, but TWO red cards to Ben Landry and Connor Cook, while an additional yellow at one point had them down 12 men to 15. On top of that, a number of other indiscretions throughout had Glendale constantly trotting back ten meters, giving the Elite the opportunity to control the pace while gaining valuable ground.
Austin can hold its head high, knowing that their performance on Saturday would have likely earned them a victory against many other clubs in this league. Glendale, meanwhile, needs to fix the discipline above all else if they hope to keep their statuses as the golden boys of the MLR.
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