Welcome to the MLR Championship Series!
In the 2nd semi-final match on Sunday night, the Toronto Arrows (11-5-0) take on the Seattle Seawolves (11-4-1) at Starfire Stadium! After beginning the season 3-4-0, the Arrows have stormed back in the 2nd half of the season. They have gone 8-1-0 since then, including a 7-game winning streak. That streak ties the mark set by the Glendale Raptors last year. The Arrows seem to have gotten better and better as the season went on and are the hottest team in the league heading into the postseason. Standing in their way on the Quest for the Shield is the Seattle Seawolves. The Seawolves are the defending MLR Champions and the first team to ever raise the Shield. In the interest of defending the shield, the Seawolves have made 2 massive signings to boost the lineup during their playoff run. They have signed Eagle and former Northampton Saint Samu Manoa and Canadian winger Jeff Hasler who took a brief hiatus from rugby (which he mostly spent sailing).
The Arrows and Seawolves split their season series at 1 game a piece with the home team victorious in both matches. In their first meeting, it was a close encounter, but Brock Staller nailed 2 penalties in the final 10 minutes of the game to give the Seawolves a win. In the 2nd match, the Arrows controlled all the territory and possession as they shattered the famed Seawall defense to the tune of a bonus point victory. At the time, Chris Silverthorn called that game, the best Arrows defensive performance of the season. However, the Arrows have significantly improved since then as well. Their 7-game win streak has been highlighted by huge wins against all the other playoff teams. The Arrows scrum lead by Rob Brouwer, Andrew Quattrin, and Morgan Mitchell has been unstoppable in their last 6 games (going back to the match with Seattle). The Arrows are firing on all cylinders and are absolutely on fire as they head into the most important part of the year.
With Toronto’s dominant run, Chris Silverthorn has once again made minimal changes to the lineup heading into Sunday’s playoff clash. The biggest change is at scrumhalf, where Andrew Ferguson will start ahead of Jamie Mackenzie. Ferguson is coming off an unbelievable performance against Glendale which he followed up with another great performance against RUNY last week. Ferguson started the match with the Raptors and was a key cog in the Arrows domination as he sprung Gaston Mieres twice and picked up a try of his own. After coming on in relief of Mackenzie against RUNY, Ferguson added his 2nd try in as many games when he caught the RUNY defense napping with quick tap penalty. Ferguson’s play as of late has really earned him the 9 jersey heading into the playoffs. The other change is that Marcello Wainwright will replace John Moonlight in the back row. Wainwright will start at blindside flanker and Peter Milazzo will be at openside flanker with Luke Campbell at No. 8. Moonlight will not be in the lineup at all and Kolby Francis will be in the reserves. Francis is the only change to the reserves.
Seattle’s two big late-season additions will be in the starting lineup on Sunday. Manoa will start at blindside flanker and Hassler will be in at winger. Hassler will be one of 7 Canadians in the lineup. He will be joined by Djustice Sears-Duru, Nakai Penny, George Barton, and Brock Staller in the Starting XV. Additionally, Phil Mack and Jake Ilnicki will be among the reserves. Ultimately, this game will feature plenty of Canadian content. The big addition to the Seattle lineup is the return of Villi Toluta’u. Toluta’u has missed the majority of this season with a broken ankle. His return for the Championship Series will be a welcome one as he has proven himself to be a clutch playoff performer. Last season, Toluta’u took home the first MLR Championship Series MVP honours last year as Seattle claimed the inaugural title. Toluta’u’s inclusion in the reserves does give Seattle’s bench an interesting look as 6 of their 8 reserves will be forwards. Mack will relieve JP Smith at scrumhalf leaving Roland Suniula the only option for the rest of the backs.
3 Things to Watch
This game features two of the best scrums in MLR. The Toronto Arrows have been decimating teams as of late and they will face a good test against the Seawolves. The Arrows’ front row of Rob Brouwer, Andrew Quattrin, and Morgan Mitchell has been exceptional at drawing penalties in the scrums as well as getting massive shoves against their opponents. They will be matched up against Djustice Sears-Duru, Stephan Coetzee, and Tim Metcher. Aside from two quality scrums squaring off, this matchup has some added intrigue. Brouwer and Sears-Duru are both in contention to wear the number 1 jersey for Canada in Japan later this year. Brouwer has been outstanding this year and as it stands, should be the starting loosehead in Japan. This game provides an opportunity for Sears-Duru to earn his way back into starting consideration with a strong performance. It will also be a chance for Brouwer to solidify that spot. There are big names in the engine room as well. Mike Sheppard and Paul Ciulini have been unstoppable this year and have been a big reason that the Arrows dominate these scrums. Seattle counters with Apisai Naikatini and Brad Tucker. Tucker has been having a terrific stretch as of late and frequently finds himself in the weekly First XV’s. Both team’s second rows will be instrumental in helping their scrum get the upper hand on Sunday night.
Malcolm vs Cima
In a game that will have a number of huge matchups, the biggest one may be Sam Malcolm vs Ben Cima at flyhalf. In their last meeting, Seattle was without Cima. With JP Smith at flyhalf, Malcolm and the Arrows dominated the territory and possession in the match. Smith struggled, and Malcolm was able to take advantage. We have seen the damage the Arrows can do to Seattle when Cima is not in the lineup. Cima will be a key figure for Seattle as they look to control the play. However, Cima will be in tough against Malcolm who has become a masterful tactician. Malcolm has been a big reason why the Arrows have been able to control the possession of the ball and the territory in the match. Malcolm does a great job in ensuring the Arrows are always in the right part of the park during key moments in the game. Malcolm is also able to open up plenty of holes in a defense and send teammates through those holes with pinpoint passing. Seattle will look to Cima to create those same opportunities. In a game filled with enticing individual matchups, Malcolm vs Cima may be the most critical one.
The last time these two clubs squared off, Silverthorn called it the Arrows’ best defensive performance of the season. That defense will once again have to be at the top of their game. The Arrows will need to be quick off the line in order to disrupt the Seawolves attack. The Arrows were able to disrupt Seattle’s attack by getting off their defensive line quickly and making tackles behind the gain line. The Arrows ability to do this led to numerous turnovers and set up deadly counter-attacks. The Arrows played their system to a tee in that last game against Seattle and it was once again perfect against Glendale. In order to defeat Seattle, Moor believes that they need to have faith in the Aaron Carpenter defensive structure that has been so successful for them this season. “We ultimately need to trust our system and play within it, but on an individual level we need some dogged aggression to bring down their big fellas up front” said Moor ahead of the match this Sunday. Many of Seattle’s key ball carriers are the big men in the pack. Sears-Duru, Naikatini, Manoa, Tucker, and Hattingh are often big contributors to the Seawolves attack. However, perhaps the biggest defensive key will be discipline. “Staying on the right side of the referee and being disciplined will be key. Starfire is a little short lengthwise, which can make those penalty kicks to touch a little more punitive” Moor said. The field position gained may not be the only way penalties can hurt the Arrows. A lack of discipline could allow Brock Staller to take advantage with kicks at goal. Staller has made 26 penalties this season, which trails only Houston’s, Sam Windsor. Two of those penalties came late in their first match with the Arrows as the Seawolves came away with a late victory. Staller is an incredibly effective kicker and you can’t give him many opportunities especially late in the game. If the Arrows are able to stay disciplined and stick to Carpenter’s system, Seattle could be in for a rough, low-scoring night.
Ultimately, the Toronto Arrows are the hottest team in MLR heading into the Championship Series. Their winning streak has the Arrows feeling confident that they will come out on top Sunday night. “The squad is full of confidence and belief, we’ve demonstrated our ability pulling out clutch wins in all sorts of ways over the last couple of months,” said Moor who also believes the Arrows can lean on their past success for confidence during the game’s tough moments. The Toronto Arrows take on the defending Champion Seattle Seawolves in the first round of the MLR Championship Series Sunday, June 9th at 9pm. You can catch the game on Facebook Watch or Game TV.