By Liam Poach
Tomorrow night, the wait for some real MLR action will be at least partially over when the Houston SaberCats take on the New Orleans Gold in the league’s first ever club vs club match. Kickoff will be at 7pm CST from Sugar Land.
There’s a ton of factors to consider in this match, so first let’s take a look at:
NOLA: There’s been plenty of hype this preseason surrounding the effectiveness of Houston’s scrum versus teams like Uruguay and the Capital Selects. But NOLA, who had their own fair share of success in the scrum vs the Selects, didn’t have Hubert Buydens at their disposal in that game. This time around, the Canadian-capped Grizzly Bear will be unleashed in the hopes he displays the same sort of dominance he did during his lone PRO year with the San Diego Breakers.
And it’s not like Buydens is the lone intimidating presence in that frontline, either. Right alongside him will be Canadian-capped Hooker Eric Howard, who already has a developed chemistry with Buydens from their national play, and Eagle #459 Ben Tarr, who himself had a successful championship run with the Denver Stampede during PRO.
Although I could go through and gush over each ‘Golden Scrummie’, one last one I’ll highlight is Vincent Jobo, who could very well be the answer to Houston’s ever explosive Josua Vici. Jobo ended the game vs the Selects with two tries that were the result of a pure physical running style that rendered the attempted arm tackles on him useless.
Should any SaberCat ever find themselves matched up with Jobo while the Gold is on the attack, they better be prepared to execute the most ‘formie’ of form tackles that has ever been…uhm…formed. Plus, the combination of him and Matt Hughston could prove to be as valuable to their defense as Bosa and Ingrham are to the LA Chargers, especially with guys like Sumsion and Garber on the other side.
Houston: The SaberCats have made some changes to the make-up of their scrum ahead of Saturday night’s bout. Usual mainstay at Hooker, and my man from Mystic River, Diego Maquieira will apparently be on the latter half of Coach Fitzpatrick’s usual 50-30 combination for playing time, while engine room specialist Charlie Hewett will also be getting a respite, allowing Fitzpatrick’s fellow countrymen Josh Allen to take his place. Allen is only 20 years old and will be the youngest among the SaberCats’ starters on Saturday.
Macklin and Mullen are two familiar faces at this point to SaberCat fans along with being Fitzy-esqe in their own right, tough Irish bas**rds, that is. Both have played at a high level in respective Irish competitions, with Mullen seeing time with the USA U20 squad. Both will provide a competitive edge to the matchup with a heavy topping of experience in matchups such as this.
The flanking combination of Garber and Sumsion says ‘speed’ more than physicality, which can work in their favor considering the imposing presences of Matt Hughston and Jobo across from them. Jobo’s physicality has already been touched upon, but Hughston is someone who can turn on the gas when needed as well, and Houston’s flanking corps might just be the perfect answer to neutralizing them. If Houston can gain possession more often than not, these two give you options in the middle to go to if NOLA manages to shut it down on the outside. Speaking of which…
NOLA: Whether or not Holden Yungert can hold it down at scrum-half the way he did against the Selects is a question that will have to be answered on the field Saturday, but he will definitely have some help in doing so. Right behind him in the 10 spot and at Captain is Taylor Howden, who throughout his career with clubs such as the Denver Barbarians, Belmont Shore, and the Ohio Aviators has showed off his ability to slice through defenses while displaying excellent timing on tight passes.
Howden could be exactly what NOLA needs, considering those who have fared the best vs Houston have tended to control the pace at a high rate of speed. Howden’s leadership ability in keeping the backline in check will be tested, and how he fares could say a lot about this team moving forward.
However, if all else fails, the Gold have a stalwart presence at fullback (YAY FULLBACKS!) in JP Eloff, who was perfect on conversions against the Selects last time he took the field with this squad. Eloff’s power on kicks coupled with his ability to tuck and run when the situation calls for is sure to be one safe guard for NOLA heading into this weekend.
Houston: While JP Eloff acts as the last line of defense for the visiting team, the SaberCats are changing it up at Fullback with Osea Kolinisau stepping in for Zach Pangelinan, who ended last week’s game with a sleeve over what sounded like an injured kicking-leg. Whether this change up is the result of that injury or just another factor in Fitzy’s 50-30 split is unknown. However, Kolinisau showed last week vs NYAC that he deserves to be out there when the first kick is off.
As always, Player/Coach Sam Windsor will be holding it down at Fly-Half as he receives passes from the energetic Connor ‘Quick Tap’ Murphy, who Coach Fitzpatrick described to me as a player they were lucky to have come over from England after he seemingly fell through the cracks of a crowded field of young UK athletes. “That’s our benefit” he added, which Murphy up to this point has proven.
One matchup that will be interesting to see (or, uh…hear) is how Alex Elkins matches up against a squad wrought with former Aviator teammates. The powerful ELKins runs more like a nimble bull elephant, and God help you if he gets the ball in space. Plus, whenever he and Mills are on the run together, you bet you can expect to see (or hear, sh**, whatever) some great passing and assisted tries from one to the other. If Houston hopes to apply real pressure to the ‘golden’ back line of NOLA, a ton of responsibility is going to fall on their shoulders. Them, and…
Josua ‘Home Run’ Vici. 7 tries in 5 games. That is all.
So it’s no secret by this point I’m a huge SaberCats guy. Love the team, the staff, I even talked to Fitzy on the phone yesterday (my recording app cut out halfway through because technology) and the guy couldn’t have been nicer. That being said and with all biases aside, I think Houston gets this one in the end.
True, many of NOLA’s players are coming in with fresher legs, but anyone who plays rugby knows fresh legs sometimes mean stiff ones coming out of the gate. My guess is that NOLA will appear to be in control of this one in the first half, keeping it close or even taking the league by a try or two thanks to a scrum that can remain competitive with the ‘Cats.
And though Houston has been known to get slowed up in the second half on occasion (see games vs Ravens and NYAC), the presence of Hewett and Pangelinan on the bench could provide a safety net should things appear to be getting out of hand late in the game. If not, then NOLA will come away with a victory by a margin that won’t tell the whole story of what is sure to be a great game.
Man of the Match: Alex Elkins
One last thought: My guy Kiernan Farmer isn’t suiting up this week! WHY?
Make sure to catch me on Mixlr Saturday morning for my new show "Saturday Morning Team Juice" where I will discuss the games to come!
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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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