By Chris Wyatt, Rugby Ascendant
Six games, all decided by five points or less in a dramatic, action-packed weekend
Saturday (08 May 2021)
- NOLA Gold 28 – Houston Sabrecats 26
- New England Free Jacks 22 – Austin Gilgronis18
- Rugby ATL 33 – Toronto Arrows 29
- Utah Warriors 34 – Old Glory DC 33
Sunday (09 May 2021)
- Rugby United New York 18 – LA Giltinis 16
- Seattle Seawolves 26 – San Diego Legion 15
Major League Rugby Commissioner George Killebrew must be smiling this week after a dramatic weekend with games hanging in the balance until the final whistle, all six games decided by less than a converted try and the seemingly unbeatable expansion Los Angeles Giltini’s held in check by a massive Rugby United New York (RUNY) defensive effort. Easing pandemic restrictions also resulted in increasingly larger crowds this weekend as well.
Midway through a 16-game season finds MLR putting on incredibly competitive and entertaining rugby with rising North American and established overseas talent delighting fans, spectators, and viewers alike. Easing pandemic restrictions are also likely to bring spectators back to the bleachers over the balance of the season. Amid easing restrictions, the Utah Warriors had 3,500 fans present for their home game this past weekend against Old Glory DC. Rugby ATL just announced they can now permit 50 percent capacity going forward. Easing constraints and widespread vaccinations bode well for improving conditions to get fans back in the stadiums.
Saturday’s action saw NOLA Gold score late and hang on to defeat the Houston Sabrecats 28-26 at the Gold Mine in New Orleans. The New England Free Jacks scored with 12 minutes remaining to take the lead for good in a 22-18 victory over Austin. Down two players in the sin bin late in the contest, the Gilgronis could not mount a comeback.
The inaugural “Fire & Ice Cup” competition between Rugby ATL and the Toronto Arrows (based in Atlanta for the season owing to pandemic travel restrictions between Canada and the US) was another nail-biter. Despite a poor first half, the Arrows found themselves leading for much of the half thanks to a charge down that resulted in an easy try and a lovely chip and chase that cracked the Ratlers’ normally stout defense. Rugby ATL managed to take a late lead on a Mark O’Keefe romp down the field after South African Johan Momsen dislodged the ball. O’Keefe, fighting off tacklers, was not wrapped up and bounded over the try line with an extra effort. The conversion put Atlanta up 19-14 at the half. The Ratlers moved out to a 26-14 lead when Marko Janse van Rensburg got a brace with a lovely try in the 43rd minute in the second half. The comfortable lead was short-lived with Argentinian Gaston Mieres scoring after a brilliant chip and chase in the 54th minute to close the gap to 25-19. It looked like Toronto was going to secure ownership and bragging rights to the Fire & Ice Cup when Taylor Adams converted a penalty in the 77th minute to go out in front, 29-26. Somehow the Ratlers gained possession and saw Ross Deacon drive across the try line in the 83rd minute for a dramatic come from behind 33-29 win.
Saturday’s final game saw the Utah Warriors come from behind at the end to shock Old Glory DC 34-33 in the 84th minute. Old Glory will be left wondering what might have been. An errant pass straight into the hands of Warrior Josh Whippy in the 13th minute resulted in a gift try for the Warriors. After scoring in the 73rd minute to take the lead, Old Glory missed the conversion to leave the Warriors some hope, which the Warriors took advantage of to secure the win in extra time. The victory at home moved Utah up into second place behind LA whom they play next weekend in Los Angeles.
Sunday’s games were no less thrilling. The biggest margin of the weekend was five points in the Seawolves’ win over the struggling San Diego Legion. After a glacial start to the season, Seattle is now 2-5-0. San Diego, a top team throughout previous MLR seasons is also struggling this year at 2-6-0.
In perhaps the most anticipated match of the weekend, where most fans expected an offensive explosion between LA and Rugby United New York (RUNY), the game quickly turned into a defensive struggle. Aside from a brilliant breakaway try from DTH van der Merwe (his league-leading 8th try of the season), this was a slugfest, and the kicking game became especially important, despite strong winds. Early in the game, RUNY elected to kick to the corner for a lineout. But LA’s stout defense and early lead after converting a penalty quickly changed that strategy. From then on, the Roosters took the points on offer whenever the opportunity presented itself. In the end, RUNY successfully converted 6 of 7 attempts to frustrate the explosive Giltinis and secure a hard-fought 18-16 win.
RUNY, now 5-2-0 and trailing New Orleans by a point in the log 24-23, travels to Texas to take on Austin next week. Although falling to RUNY 18-16 at Cochrane Stadium in Jersey City, the expansion Giltinis remain a formidable front runner in the Western Conference at 6-1-0 with 31 log points and a seven-point lead over second-place Utah.
With such competitive rugby on offer, some big named players on the pitch, and pandemic restrictions easing, it looks to be an exciting second half for MLR 2021.