Photos and article by Chris Wyatt, Rugby Ascendant
Rugby ATL recorded its fifth consecutive win and improved all its table numbers as the front runner in Major League Rugby’s Eastern Conference with 17-12 home win over the LA Giltinis.
The Ratlers now lead the Eastern Conference on points with 35 to Rugby United New York’s (RUNY) 34. Both are 7-3-0 after ten games in a competitive race. The previous week the Ratlers flew across the continent to play Seattle. The long trip cross country and back left some wondering whether the Ratlers would be sufficiently rested and ready to take on the powerhouse try scoring machine that is LA.
After a visit to Houston last week, the Giltinis were on the road to Atlanta this time. The question for LA fans was how LA would handle back-to-back road games. Whether the journey played a role or not, one thing is certain, both of LA’s losses this season have been on the road and on the east coast where they fell in Jersey City to RUNY18-16 on May 9th, despite not allowing a try. The Giltinis fell short once more in Marietta against an inspired Rugby ATL defense for only their second loss of the season.
Rugby ATL put on a clinic with a dogged defensive effort that, while not error free, was spirited nonetheless with over 260 tackles. The game was scoreless for the first 22 minutes until Rugby ATL’s Adriaan Carelse caught a wide pass and reached paydirt. Carelse’s conversion put the Ratlers up seven to nil in the 23rd minute. Shortly afterwards, LA got on the scoreboard with Canada’s ever dangerous DTH van der Merwe diving over the try line in the 35th minute.
Things got a bit chippy just before van der Merwe’s try with players pushing and shoving in the middle of the pitch near the try line and continued after the LA try when play restarted. The Giltinis’ Luke White received a red card for foul play in the ruck in the 36th minute, leaving LA a man down for over half the game. Despite playing shorthanded, the Giltinis did well defensively, repeatedly holding back the Ratlers efforts to capitalize on the man advantage as the first half winded down. Scott Lawrence’s Atlanta side finally opted to kick for points after an LA penalty, putting them up 10-5 at the half. Going into the break, the Ratlers must have felt good about their performance in holding the high scoring Giltinis to just a single first half try.
The second half started slowly with neither side gaining the upper hand until scrum half Ryan Reese, who came off the bench, took an exceptional offload from Bautista Ezcurra to add another try to Atlanta’s total. The successful conversion pushed the Atlanta lead to 17-5 in the 46th minute. The final thirty minutes from the 52nd minute mark until the game ended was a defensive showcase for both squads, neither willing to give up. At field level the bone crushing sounds echoed across the field. After Carelse attempted a chip and chase that came back for an infraction away from the ball in the 73rd minute, several Giltinisplayers looked gassed, knackered with hands on hips, bent over gasping for air. The moment was indicative of the titanic effort both sides had put into this contest. Only van der Merwe, Adam Ashley-Cooper and a few others appeared as though they had the reserves to go the distance.
While down two tries and running out of time, LA still somehow had the energy and drive to use phase after phase and pure grit to move the ball up the pitch, finally breaking through the Ratlers tenacious defense when flanker Angus Cottrell scored for LA. Luke Carty slotted the conversion to narrow the gap to an unconverted try at 17-12 with less than four minutes remaining. LA got back on the horse and held their composure, working the ball back and forth until Giltinis hooker Lindsey Stevens from Australia was taken off on stretcher in the 78th minute. Down a man owing to Luke White’s first half red card, LA kept up the pressure. It was clear that either a mistake or a penalty was the only way the Giltinis would be put away.
In extra time the Giltinis were as close as eight meters from the try line before the Ratlers pushed them back a few meters. On a brilliant offload Adam Ashley-Cooper took a knock on the knee and went down. With only 13 players moving on the pitch, there was no quit in the Giltinis, nor in the Rugby ATL defense for that matter. A successful Ratler counterruck at 82:22 and an ensuing penalty on LA finally ended the game with a 17-12Atlanta victory.
Despite the loss, LA retains a league best 8-2-0 record with 41 log points, ten more than second place Utah in the Western Conference. The Giltinis have a week off with a bye.
Five consecutive wins does not earn Rugby ATL any respite as they travel to New Orleans next weekend to face the third place NOLA Gold at the Gold Mine. Many ATL players view NOLA as a natural rival. This will no doubt add to the game’s intrigue. A loss to NOLA would leave the Ratlers in first as NOLA cannot close the six-point gap and RUNY has a bye week. A victory would serve them best, as their next game after NOLA is against RUNY in New Jersey the following week.