12 Thoughts From Week 1 in the MLR
Source: David Frerker/MLR
The 2020 MLR season has kicked off! Here are Twelve thoughts on the MLR’s opening week.
New England Free Jacks Stun RUNY
No one picked them to win. Well ok, apparently 5 people did. The New England Free Jacks delivered a shocking blow to Rugby United New York and earned a decisive 34-14 victory. Led by Canadian captain Josh Larsen, the Free Jacks came out to the gate flying and jumped out to a big 15-0 lead early. The Rugby Gods were on their side a bit as Tadgh Leader’s free kick rode the wind deep into RUNY territory.
With Ben Foden retreating the ball bounced off the crossbar and landed in the hands of Bradley Hemopo Foden was left flabbergasted and it is one of the wildest tries in MLR history. Former All Blacks 7s player Beaudein Waaka made his presence felt in the MLR early. He had two tries and set up Liam Steel for another.
A bonus point victory over one of MLR’s top teams in 2019 is the best possible start to your franchise’s history. It’s probably because they have old school collars on their kits.
We saw a handful of great stadiums throughout the opening week of MLR. The Houston SaberCats debuted the fully completed Aveva Stadium for the first time. On television, the SaberCats/rugby specific stadium looked brilliant. It truly looks like the SaberCats home with black and yellow seats, murals of the players on the wall, and a big SaberCats logo on the pitch (although it is odd that it is not oriented to face the camera).
The NOLA Gold also debuted the Shrine on Airline, aka the Gold Mine on Saturday. NOLA is also in full control of their stadium and have completely converted the baseball venue to be more suitable for rugby. A really nice touch that the Gold had was MLR and sponsor logos placed throughout the pitch. Life University’s Roaring Eagles Stadium looks like a great home for Rugby ATL and the great crowd added to the aesthetic.
Bold Stadium at Circuit of the Americas gave a great show in the Austin Gilgronis opener. The laser show that accumulated in the laser inscribing the AG’s on the pitch was a fun touch. I don’t believe any other stadium in the league is capable of that. Ultimately, better stadiums and visible sponsorships give the league a true highest-level professional competition look.
The NOLA Gold’s stadium and on-field performance were in-fine form on Saturday. Cam Dolan ran in a hat-trick as the pack completely dominated Old Glory DC. However, one issue with NOLA’s performance was their kit. The Gold took the pitch for the first time at the Shrine on Airline wearing a white kit with white numbers. The numbers were outlined in gold, which seemed to just blend into the pattern on their kit. Ultimately, this made the numbers incredibly hard to read.
Of course, I was not at the game, so I am just speaking from experience of watching on television. It looked like the camera had a hard time picking up the numbers in the sun. When the shade began to roll in, it became a bit easier to read.
However, for most of the match it was extremely difficult to read as seen in the screenshot below. Seasoned MLR fans would still be able to recognize players’ faces, but any new fans would struggle to identify who was who. NOLA needs to make a change to the numbers, but hopefully that change isn’t giant football numbers on the front.
As you can see it's tough to make out who's who. (Source: CST)
Colorado’s Scrum Troubles Continue
The Colorado Raptors reached the final in their first year of MLR before losing to Seattle in the final. Last season, they failed to make the playoffs. A big reason for that was the scrum. The Raptors scrum was frequently under siege last year and became a major Achilles’ Heel for the club. Well, it looks like they still have not removed the poison arrow from their foot.
The Houston SaberCats scrum was dominant and gave them a steady attacking platform. The first scrum of the match saw Houston put the Raptors on skis and win the ball against the feed. Adriaan Booysen picked up a try on an 8-man pick during a close range scrum as well. Once again, the Raptors struggled in the scrum and came out on the losing side of the match because of it. It was their biggest issue last season, but off-season signings added plenty to the backs instead. The scrum was not really addressed.
The Raptors demonstrated they are capable of scoring tries with a great run by John Ryberg on the inside ball from Chad London. However, the attack looked disjointed throughout the match. Part of that was because the scrum could never give the Raptors a good platform.
There were a handful of key players missing across the league as team’s still work to get their visas sorted. The big names missing from opening weekend included Springbok Tendai “the Beast” Mtawarira (Old Glory DC), Maori All Black Kara Pryor (RUNY), Wallabies Digby Ioane (Colorado) and Adam Ashley-Cooper (Austin, although he just signed), and a host of others.
Visas continue to be something that the league has struggled with since year one. Now, I can’t criticize this because I don’t know anything about the legal process to acquire a visa for a professional athlete. I just hope that the league can find a solution soon. It would be great to see every club put forward their best squad on the opening weekend in 2021.
It appears that Mtawarira has arrived in America, so hopefully we have a much-anticipated debut to look forward to in the coming weeks.
The Toronto Arrows earned high praise from across social media when they became the first team in MLR history to provide an official injury report. The report informed fans and media that Spencer Jones and Marcello Wainwright are both week-to-week with upper body injuries. I genuinely hope that the other 11 MLR teams are paying attention to it and begin to follow suit shortly.
The Arrows coming out and publicly addressing injuries is a great step forward for the league. In previous seasons, everyone was left to guess or speculate why a player was not in the lineup. The Arrows have eliminated that guess work by providing the report themselves.
As a bonus, the announcement was sponsored by Foundation Physiotherapy & Wellness. Having a physiotherapist sponsor the injury report is brilliant. The Arrows will be continuing with their sponsored injury reports throughout the year.
Speaking of injuries, RUNY suffered injuries to a number of key players in their loss to the Free Jacks. Flanker Alex MacDonald and lock Trevor Cassidy look to both be out long term. MacDonald has suffered a torn pectoral muscle and Cassidy is out with broken ribs. MacDonald posted on social media that he hopes to be back for the playoffs. Cassidy also took to social media (via Instagram post) to detail the extent of his injury and set a timeline of 6 weeks to return.
Additionally, Paddy Ryan had to leave the game with a leg injury although no update has been provided by himself or the club. The RUNY season could not have gotten off to a worse start. The injuries to three key members of the pack just adds onto their disappointing loss. RUNY will now anxiously await the visa clearances of Kara Pryor and Evan Mintern to fill their spots in the lineup.
The arrival of opening weekend meant a lot of big names were making their MLR debut (at least the ones that got their visas cleared). Rene Ranger, Mathieu Bastareaud, Kensuke Hatakeyama, and Ma’a Nonu were among the high-profile players to grace an MLR pitch for the first time. Ranger and Bastareaud had disappointing debuts. Ranger was largely ineffective coming on as a reserve in the 2nd half. His match will probably be most remembered for a knock-on that resulted in a Houston try.
Bastareaud was invisible as New England dismantled RUNY. The French centre only had 2 carries for a total of 9m during his 60-minute shift. On the other side of the Free Jacks - RUNY match was Hatakeyama. The experienced Brave Blossom prop created a solid scrum platform for New England throughout the match. Hatakeyama was part of a pack that won 100% of their own scrums while dropping RUNY to 86%.
Nonu had a massive game for the San Diego Legion. He wasn’t involved too early and ultimately ended with just 4 carries for 33m. However, despite that, he completely took over the match and propelled the Legion to a victory over Seattle. Two of those 4 carries directly resulted in tries as Nonu picked apart the Seawall with some absolutely gorgeous passing. For the opening 15 minutes of the first half, Nonu was in complete control of the match. He helped extend the lead and put the game out of reach (despite a late Seattle comeback attempt).
The best debut of the weekend though, came from former All Blacks 7s star Beaudein Waaka. Waaka wracked up two tries and a conversion for the Free Jacks. He had a team leading 72m carried, breaking the gainline on all 9 of his carries. He had the highlight reel break that set up Liam Steel’s try of the week. Ultimately, an amazing start to the year for him personally and the Free Jacks.
The Arrows Scrum
Arrows scrum looked in fine form to start the year. The Arrows completely dominate the scrum against Austin and look to have one of, if not the best scrum in MLR. In their 38-10 victory over the Austin Gilgronis the Arrows scored three tries directly from a massive scrum.
The Arrows ended the game with 100% of their own scrums won while holding Austin to just 71%. The Arrows scrum looks to be a major catalyst for their success this season. For more analysis of the Arrows scrum dominance, check out my match recap.
The Arrows should receive a bigger challenge this week. The Houston SaberCats also dominated the Colorado Raptors. Houston was perfect on their own scrums while Colorado won just 67% of theirs. It should be an intriguing matchup in Vegas this weekend.
Killebrew Confirms Big Market Interest
During the halftime of the Free Jacks beatdown of RUNY, Commissioner George Killebrew revealed that there are 6 cities with groups interested in joining MLR in 2022. Joining the MLR in 2021 will be the Los Angeles Loyals and an unnamed Dallas club.
It’s great to see that there are groups in many cities interested in joining MLR. A few cities have already emerged as rumoured locations for the 15th and 16th team. RCT owner Mourad Boudjellal has been vocal about wanting a team in Miami. Las Vegas could also be an interesting option as the league is clearly testing the market with the MLR Vegas Weekend.
Many fans seem to always bring up Vancouver. However, despite the fact that Vancouver may make a lot of sense, nothing has ever materialized due to lack of a viable ownership group. Could that be changing? Perhaps, but I’d be willing to bet that there will be two more American cities in the next expansion. To be a major league you need to hit the biggest media markets in North America.
The 3 biggest markets without a team are Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco. In no way am I saying or confirming that there is an ownership group in those cities. I just think if there is more expansion in the future, those would be three cities I would want to target.
Top Canadian: Matt Heaton
The Arrows had a dominant performance but my Top Canadian award goes to Matt Heaton. Heaton served as the captain of Rugby ATL as he led the squad out in their first ever MLR match. Heaton would score the first try in Rugby ATL history as the beneficiary of a good maul.
Heaton’s club found themselves trailing Utah, but they worked their way back to take a late lead. Heaton sealed the game with a massive hit and turnover to put the ball back in Rugby ATL hands. After the turnover, Coleman iced the game with a penalty goal. Ultimately, Heaton finished the match with a try, 20m carried, and a game leading 17 tackles with a 100% completion rate.
Heaton and Rugby ATL will look to keep rolling next week against NOLA.
Looking Ahead: Vegas Weekend
The Vegas weekend technically kicked off in week 1 with the RUNY vs Free Jacks match being played at Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas. Although the game was one of the more entertaining matches of the weekend, it made for an odd spectacle on television. The 40,000-seat stadium looked barren for nearly every angle of the match.
Hopefully, 8 MLR teams and their fans descending on Sin City this weekend will produce a bumper crowd. It is the MLR’s first attempt at a major in-season event. Most of the other major leagues have events like an All-Star Game or other specialty matches like the Winter Classic or the upcoming Field of Dreams game. I’m excited to head down and see what the league has to offer.