MLR Season Preview: NOLA, New York, San Diego
In the second part of the Layman’s Sports Major League Rugby Season Preview we will take a look at the NOLA Gold, Rugby United New York, and the San Diego Legion.
2018 Record: 3-5-0, 6th Overall, Missed Playoffs
Key Departures: Sebastian Kalm, Matt Hughston, Matt Wirkin
Key Additions: Kyle Baillie, Cam Dolan, Tristan Blewett, Deion Mikesell
Head Coach: Nathan Osborne
GM: Ryan Fitzgerald
NOLA Gold had an interesting offseason. The biggest player that left their squad was Sebastian Kalm. However, Kalm only played in 2 games and missed the rest of the year with a neck injury. Other than Kalm, Matt Hughston, Matt Wirkin, Miles McQuone, and Anthony Perry are the extent of NOLA’s departures. The 2018 squad is left relatively intact heading into the 2019 season. That squad finished 2018 in 6th overall with a 3-5-0 record but was plagued with injuries. In addition to Kalm, South African Vince Jobo missed the entire season with a torn Achilles tendon after suffering the injury in the final preseason game. As the season progressed it became clear that NOLA was having trouble with their overall depth. That is a problem Ryan Fitzgerald clearly addressed in the offseason. Although only a handful guys are heading out, a lot more are coming back in.
Sebastian Kalm’s replacement is USA Eagle No 8 Cam Dolan. Dolan has been capped by the Eagles 40 times scoring 13 tries in those appearances. Dolan is a veteran of the Rugby World Cup and Pro 14 where he played for the Cardiff Blues. In 2018 Dolan played for the San Diego Legion where he was named to the first All MLR team at the No 8 position. With the signing of Dolan, the Gold immediately improve their back row and their pack overall.
NOLA did not stop improving the back row with Dolan. Canadian flanker Kyle Baillie will also be joining the Gold for the 2019 season. Baillie was an absolute monster for Canada at the repechage tournament. Baillie was dominant through all three games as Canada forwards turned in some big shifts to earn that final spot at the Rugby World Cup. He is excellent in the rucks and is a constant turnover threat.
Dolan and Baillie will join Vince Jobo on what should turn out to be one of the best back rows in Major League Rugby. Jobo was one of the Gold’s biggest signings prior to the beginning of the 2018 season. Previously playing for Eastern Province’s Currie Cup side, Jobo was expected to play a big role with NOLA. However, his Achilles injury kept him out for the entire year and NOLA severely missed his defensive abilities. NOLA gave up a league high 291 points against in 2018, however with Dolan, Baillie, and Jobo manning the back row, that won’t happen again this year.
The rest of the forward pack is also unbelievably talented. Up front it will be Hubert Buydens, Eric Howard, and Ben Tarr. Buydens and Howard have both been capped by Canada and Tarr by USA. Second rowers include Nikola Bursic, Ignacio Dotti, and Kane Thompson all of whom have international caps for Chile, Uruguay, and Samoa respectively. Ultimately, if NOLA chooses they can line up a pack of entirely internationally capped players. If they did, the guy coming off the bench is Vince Jobo. So it’s safe to say the depth problem has been firmly addressed.
The back line received many notable upgrades as well. Elite flyhalf JP Eloff and fellow Eagles teammate winger Tim Maupin return to the Gold. Much like the forward pack though, they are joined by plenty of reinforcements. NOLA has brought in South African centre Tristan Blewett, future USA Eagle star Deion Mikesell, and All-American Nick Feakes to provide the Gold with new attacking options. Blewett grew up going through the Sharks system in South Africa. He spent most of his professional time playing for the Sharks Currie Cup side. Blewett then had a brief 2 game stint with the Southern Kings of Pro 14 before deciding to join NOLA. Blewett will also be able to help with NOLA’s depth problems from last season. Blewett prefers centre but is capable of playing wing and fullback as well. This will be beneficial to NOLA if injuries produce a need to shift him around in the lineup.
Mikesell is the 4th youngest player to earn a cap with the USA Eagles. Although he has only earned 2 total caps Mikesell is one of the players that is being looked at to provide the Eagles with a bright future. Mikesell is a graduate of Lindenwood University program and upon graduating he headed overseas to France to join Clermont Auvergne. Mikesell only spent 4 months with Clermont, but he planned on returning to the USA all along. Now the 2019 MLR season provides Mikesell with a chance to show why he belongs on the 2019 Rugby World Cup Eagles squad.
Feakes, originally from Australia, is an All-American fullback who is also a Lindenwood University product. Much like Blewett, Feakes is can play multiple positions creating a back line that is incredibly versatile.
The outlook for NOLA Gold should be very positive for the upcoming season. NOLA is the most improved team in MLR as they did a great job addressing their weaknesses in the offseason. The biggest problem NOLA had last season was injuries and the lack of depth. It was a problem that was addressed thoroughly by Fitzgerald and, provided they do not run into the same injury issues, they will be one of the deepest teams in MLR. Ultimately, the scrum is a lot better than last year and last year’s NOLA scrum led the league in average scrum wins per game. Every other element of the team has been improved and so should NOLA’s position in the league standings. Fitzgerald sorted out the team’s biggest issues and the playoffs should be awaiting NOLA’s arrival.
2019 Expansion team
Key Players: Ben Foden, Cathal Marsh, Paddy Ryan, Dylan Fawsitt, Chris Mattina, John Quill
Head Coach: Mike Tolkin
GM: James English
Major League Rugby enters the Big Apple as Rugby United New York joins the league. RUNY will be playing their home games at MCU Park in Coney Island. MCU Park is also home to the Brooklyn Cyclones, a minor league affiliate to the New York Mets and seats 7,000 people.
The team will be led by General Manager James English and Head Coach Mike Tolken. The coaching staff also features Tiffany Faaee as the forwards and tackling coach. Faaee is a former captain of the USA Eagles and led them to a 4th place finish at the 2017 Women’s Rugby World Cup. Faaee is the first female to coach a men’s professional rugby union team.
RUNY has drawn plenty of players from the local talent pool. Old Blue RFC and New York Athletic Club (NYAC) boast two of the best rugby programs in New York and their influence is all over the RUNY roster. Representing Old Blue RFC is wingers Mike St. Claire and Luke Hume, fullback Connor Wallace-Sims, and hooker Dylan Fawsitt. Wallace-Sims has represented USA on the sevens circuit and both Hume and Fawsitt have been capped by the Eagles. Additionally, Fawsitt earned First MLR Team hooker honours last year as he helped the Glendale Raptors to the MLR Final.
NYAC is thoroughly represented at RUNY. Head Coach Mike Tolkin has had two stints as the Head Coach with NYAC beginning in 2000. Tolkin spent over a decade at NYAC before taking the job as the USA Eagles Head Coach in 2012. Tolkin coached the Eagles through the 2015 Rugby World Cup in England and then returned to NYAC in 2016 before taking the job to coach New York’s first professional rugby team. Coaches often love the familiarity of players that they have coached before especially if they have had success with those players. Tolkin has won 3 National Championships coaching NYAC and they added another 2 while Tolkin was with the Eagles. Tolkin’s Eagles roster featured many players from NYAC and now is RUNY roster is heavily populated by NYAC. Hooker Mike Brown, prop Anthony Perry, lock Nate Brakeley, No 8 Ross Deacon, scrumhalf Mike Petri, scrumhalf Marcus Walsh, centre Seamus Kelly, and centre Chris Mattina all have played at NYAC. Brakeley, Petri, and Kelly have all been capped by the Eagles with Petri and Kelly being a part of Tolkin’s 2015 Rugby World Cup Squad. Mattina has been a vital piece of USA Eagles Sevens program for a number of years.
A number of big pieces have also been added from outside the Empire State. RUNY has developed a rather large Irish contingent on their squad. General Manager James English, originally from London, England, moved to Ireland and coached both Fawsitt and Walsh at Blackrock College. Dolphin RFC, located in Cork, also has a major influence on the roster. Dolphin RFC is where John Quill and James Rochford began their rugby careers. Quill has now represented the Eagles 29 times including Tolkin’s 2015 Rugby World Cup squad. He was a key component of Glendale’s dominance last season and is an exceptional flanker who is invaluable at breakdowns both offensively and defensively. Rochford has played for the famed Irish provincial side Munster as well as a stint in Italy with SS Lazio. Rochford, a prop, is a strong scrummager who is capable of lining up at both loosehead and tighthead. This is great for RUNY as they have a number of strong props including Perry at loosehead and Paddy Ryan at tighthead. Ryan was born in Chicago, but was raised in Ireland and is also a product of Dolphin RFC. Ryan has been capped by the Eagles 4 times and after a successful 2018, season with Austin Elite will be looking to make a big push for the Eagles Rugby World Cup squad.
The pack will be the strength RUNY and they will look to employ a physical style of rugby. A front row of Rochford, Fawsitt, Ryan, second row of Brakeley and McQuone, and the back row with Quill, MLR all -star Matt Hughston, and Deacon will be a force to reckon with as RUNY joins MLR. Their reserves will also provide plenty of quality in the pack for both an in game sub and long term injury relief.
Ben Foden is perhaps the biggest name added to Rugby United New York and maybe MLR as a whole. Foden has 34 caps for England under his belt and has scored 7 tries in those matches. The fullback also just ended a 13 year run in the English Premiership split between the Sale Sharks and Northampton Saints. Foden scored 47 tries in 218 Premiership matches. In 2014, Foden scored the opening try for Northampton in their thrilling 24-20 extra time victory over Saracens in the Premiership Final. Foden has played on some of the biggest stages that rugby has to offer such as Six Nations and Rugby World Cup. He has had success on those stages as well. In addition to his 2014 Premiership Championship, Foden was a part of the 2011 England side that won the Six Nations tournament. It will be interesting to see how the rest of the league stacks up to Foden. Will he dominate or will the other fullbacks around the league be able to prove that they belong on the pitch with a player of Foden’s accolades?
The outlook for Rugby United New York’s first MLR season should be mostly positive. Most of the elite rugby talent in MLR that was from New York made the decision to come home. NYAC and Old Blue have won multiple national championships and many players from those teams will feature into RUNY’s lineup. Wilkin and English’s familiarity with the majority of the team should allow them to gel quickly. The 4th and final playoff spot might not be far out of reach, but it will be a battle. There is not a lot of game film to go off of for RUNY either. The team was involved in a traffic collision on their way to play an exhibition match vs the Toronto Arrows in Buffalo. No one was hurt but the game had to be cancelled. RUNY was going to deploy a nearly full strength lineup for the first time and we could have got a great look at what they truly are going to try to do this year. Ultimately, Rugby United New York should find themselves in a tight battle with San Diego and Toronto for the final playoff spot.
2018 Record: 5-3-0, 3rd Overall, Lost in Semi-Final
Key Departures: Cam Dolan, Ben Cima, Tadhg Leader
Key Additions: Psalm Wooching, Keni Nasoqeqe, Jasa Veremalua, Paddy Ryan
Head Coach: Rob Hoadley
The San Diego Legion joined the Seattle Seawolves and Glendale Raptors as the only three teams above 500 in the inaugural MLR season. After starting the season 2-3-0, the Legion rattled off a 3-game winning streak to make the playoffs. That streak was highlighted by a 23-5 win over Glendale, ending their undefeated season in the final game of the year. The Legion then fell to eventual champions Seattle Seawolves in the semi-finals.
The 2018 season was a success for the Legion and they will be looking to take the next step toward title contention this year. Unfortunately, some big name players will not be returning to the Legion in 2019. First All-MLR team No 8 Cam Dolan has joined NOLA, USA Eagle flyhalf Ben Cima has joined the champions and Tadhg Leader has joined New England Freejacks as they gear up for their exhibition series with the Irish provinces. However, much of the core leadership group is still intact. USA Eagle scrumhalf Nate Augsberger and Eagle fullback Mike Te’o are both returning to the Legion again. Dylan Audsley and Ryan Matyas are returning as well. Combined the 4 Eagles create a dynamic back line that is the strength of the Legion.
That core will also be joined by Jasa Veremalua. Veremalua is a member of the Fijian Sevens team and was part of the squad that took home the Gold Medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Veremalua will be one of the fastest players in MLR. He is also a master of the offload, a trademark of the Fijian Sevens team. Veremalua will be a huge asset on the wing on what is already one of MLR’s top back lines.
One notable area of weakness for the Legion was their scrummaging. San Diego was last in every major statistical category for scrums that MLR tracks.. The Legion lost First All-MLR Team No. 8 Cam Dolan to NOLA as well. As a result, the scrum was clearly an area that Hoadley wanted to address in the off season. The Legion have added Psalm Wooching, Keni Nasoqeqe, and Paddy Ryan in efforts to beef up in that area.
Ryan is the biggest name acquired by the Legion. The 30 year-old Australian prop joins the Legion after retiring from Super Rugby. Ryan played 105 games for the New South Wales Waratahs and in 2014, he helped the Waratahs win the franchise's first Super Rugby Championship. Additionally, Ryan has earned 3 caps with the Wallabies. Watching Ryan play his first MLR season should be fun. It will be interesting to see how the other props in MLR stack up against Ryan. Super Rugby is probably the best club rugby competition in the world and the other props may want to use him as a measuring stick.
Dolan’s replacement will be Keni Nasoqeqe. Nasoqeqe originally hails from Fiji but has been playing rugby in the USA for a number of years. He spent 2018 with Belmont Shore RFC where he scored 8 tries in 8 games. Nasoqeqe is a very powerful runner, making him an effective ball carrier who requires multiple defenders to commit to bring him down.
Psalm Wooching was a standout linebacker for the University of Washington Huskies. However, he turned down multiple offers from NFL teams deciding to return to his first love of rugby. Wooching is a flanker that is known for his hard and heavy hits on defence. He has said that he models his game after Brian “The Chiropractor” Lima if you need a idea for how he intends to play the game. Wooching has already been capped by the Eagles 4 time since his return to the sport in 2018. A new pro league in North America is an excellent opportunity for Wooching who will be looking to prove that he made the right decision in walking away from the NFL.
So how much does San Diego’s scrum improve? They were already a top team in MLR with a weak scrum, how good will they be now that Ryan, Wooching, and Nasoqeqe have been brought in as reinforcements? If the San Diego scrum improves as much as it should with the new additions, the Legion could be a major threat this year.
Unfortunately, the Legion may face a difficult start to the year. They already have some injury problems as Augsberger and Wooching seem like they will miss round one. The other issue that the Legion face is the Americas Rugby Championship. The Legion boast the most capped Eagles of any MLR team in the lineup. As a result they will be without Boyer, Matyas, Pifletti, Te’o, Audsley, Augsberger, and Wooching (Augsberger and Wooching were still named to the team despite injury). All in all it means the majority of that back line that is the strength of the team will be missing to start the year. It will be up to the Legion’s depth to put them in a good position for when all their Eagles return from international duties.
San Diego’s start will probably determine how their season goes. If they can pick up wins without their Eagles they will be in excellent shape. However, if they don’t, the Eagles will still be there to pick up the slack. San Diego has one of the league’s best back lines (it is essentially the Eagles after all) and it will be difficult for opponents to contain them when they are at full strength. However, NOLA also drastically improved their team and will be a serious threat to the Legion’s position in the standings. San Diego will looking to return to the playoffs this year, but they will have to fight for the last spot.
Part 3 of the MLR season preview will be up shortly. We will check in with the defending champions, Canada’s first professional rugby union team, and 2018’s highest scoring team.