MLR Season Preview: Austin, Glendale, Houston

The 2019 Major League Rugby season is upon us! Round 1 kicks off this weekend as MLR looks to build off a successful inaugural year. This season MLR welcomes two new teams, Rugby United New York and the Toronto Arrows, as they begin their eastern expansion. All 9 of the clubs had a busy off-season as they signed a wealth of new overseas talent improving the league’s overall talent pool. As we get ready for the first weekend of games, it is time to make the predictions.

This is part 1 of a 3 part season preview where I will break down each team’s outlook as we head into the 2019 season. Up first we head to Texas, where Austin Elite Rugby and the Houston Sabercats will look to improve on disappointing 2018 seasons. We will also check in with the Glendale Raptors, who after being the best team all year came up short in the Finals. The Raptors have some unfinished business this year, but have they made the moves to propel them to the top?

Source: austineliterugby.com

2018 Record: 3-5-0 5th Overall, Missed Playoffs

Key Departures: Hanco Germishuys, Paddy Ryan, Roland Suniula

Key Additions: Sebastian Kalm, Juan Echeverria, Josh Larsen, Travis Larsen, Peni Tagive

Head Coach: Alain Hyardet

GM: Thierry Daupin

There might not be a team in MLR that got hit harder by departures than Austin. Austin has lost Eagles prop Paddy Ryan to Rugby United New York, former Eagle Roland Sunila leaves his brother Andrew in Austin to join his other brother Shalom in Seattle, Hanco Germishuys, the league’s best player, departed to Glendale, and Pedrie Wannenburg, the former Springbok No.8, announced his retirement. At least Wannenburg is staying on as a coach. Ultimately, between retirements and player transfers Alain Hyardet and Thierry Daupin were left with plenty of gaps to fill.

Sebastian Kalm, the Chilean No. 8, was the biggest signing made by Thierry Daupin this offseason. Kalm has the potential to be an elite back row forward in MLR. Kalm actually earned MVP honours during the one and only season of PRO Rugby. Unfortunately, a neck injury derailed his first MLR season with NOLA Gold and he only played in two games. Kalm scored a try in the opener against Houston before leaving the second game with Austin following a hit from Hanco Germishuys. Kalm will be looking to have a big season for Austin. He began playing rugby in the United States for Lindenwood University in 2013. As a result, Kalm qualifies on residency and is now eligible to play for the Eagles. Kalm has expressed interest in representing the Eagles instead of Chile and the 2019 MLR season could be a big opportunity for him to put himself in the discussion for the No 8 jersey. Kalm is known for his exceptional ball carrying ability and will be featured heavily into Austin’s offence.

Austin also added Uruguayan prop Juan Echeverria. Echeverria has been capped 43 times for Los Terros and has scored 3 tries. The Elite continued to beef up their pack by signing a pair of Canadian brothers, Travis Larsen and Josh Larsen. Travis, the oldest of the two, is a flanker who has seen time with Canada ‘A’ and Josh has earned 9 caps for Canada as a lock.

The back line will have a different look in 2019 as well. Andrew Suniula (centre), Timothée Guillimin (flyhalf), and Zinzan Elan-Puttick (fullback) will all return but, the scrumhalf position features two new faces. For Austin’s final game of the 2018 season, they brought in French prospect Mickael Romera. Romera has played in the French Top 14 for US Oyonnax and has been involved in their Challenge Cup campaigns as well. He will have to battle with Marcello Torrealba for game time. Torrealba was signed this offseason and has been a key component of Chili’s sevens team for years. Torrealba developed his game by playing in the New Zealand high school system. Despite only being 21, Torrealba has been on the Chilean national team for over 4 years. Austin did start Romera in their preseason games and he also assumed the kicking duties. Romera’s kicking may give him the edge for the starting job.

Roland Suniula’s replacement at centre is perhaps Austin’s most unique signing. Ratu Peni Tagive has played every code you can think off. The Australian began his professional career in rugby league with Wests Tigers of the NRL. Tagive would spend a handful of injury-plagued years in the NRL while also suiting up for St George Illawarra Dragons and the Sydney Roosters. He then came over to North America and played American football at Baylor University where he was part of the Baylor Bears back-to-back Big 12 Championships in 2013 and 2014. Tagive returned to Australia and played rugby union for Wests. Tagive returned to North America and has played for Old Blue and the Austin Huns. Tagive is a massive, speedy, and elusive player that is sure to give many defensive lines around the MLR fits.

Ultimately, Austin finished 5th overall in 2018 with a 3-5-0 record. That record was tied for the final playoff spot but they missed out due to Utah having more bonus points. Austin will struggle again this year. They lost quite a bit of their big impact players this offseason and their replacements are not necessarily a significant improvement. Austin was in the middle of the pack in nearly every major statistical category in 2018. Austin actually led the league in time in the opposition 22 per game, on average spending 10:20 inside the 22. With all this time in the 22, Austin came away with 27 tries, 4th most in the league. Players like Kalm, Suniula, Guillimin, Elan-Puttick, and Tagive may be instrumental in ensuring Austin can capitalize more frequently on their opportunities.

Additionally, last season Guillimin provided a constant threat to opposing team’s defences. Guillimin was tied for the league lead with 13 penalty goals and had a percentage of 69%. However, he struggled off the tee in the first half of the season. After 4 games he was just 3/7, but he caught fire in the second half of the year going 10/12 (83%) for the final 4 games. Bringing in conversion kicks as well, Guillimin was a perfect 8/8 in the final two games of the year. Should this form continue, teams may be extra cautious not to take a penalty when Austin gets them pinned in their own end.

One big area that Austin can improve on from last year is finding a way to stay in games. As I said, Austin missed out on the playoffs due to bonus points. One way to get a bonus point is to lose by less than 7. Austin picked up this bonus point once all year. Despite being 4th in MLR with 238 points against (middle of the pack again), when Austin lost, they lost badly. In their 5 losses, Austin was defeated by an average of 13 points. The one outlier was a 20-19 loss to Seattle. This will need to be a team effort from Alain Hydret’s side and should not come down to one person.

The problem with being a middle of the pack team is that if the pack gets bigger, you will slip in the standings. Major League Rugby is expanding to 9 teams in 2019 and on paper both the Toronto Arrows and Rugby United New York look like better teams than Austin. Keeping games tight might be good for an eventual tiebreaker, but you need to win enough games to put yourself in that position. Austin will be on the outside looking in once again this year.

Source: glendaleraptors.com

2018 Record 7-1-0, 1st Overall, Lost in Final

Key Departures: Ben Landry, Sam Figg, John Quill

Key Additions: Hanco Germishuys, Malon Al-Jabori

Head Coach: David Williams

GM: Mark Bullock

Heading into the 2018 MLR season the Glendale Raptors were the odds on favourites to with the inaugural MLR Championship. As the season played out, it became clear that Glendale was the best team in competition. They finished the year with 7-1-0 record (the only loss coming to San Diego in Round 10 to deny their undefeated year) and it was on to the playoffs. They defeated the Utah Warriors 34-21 to advance to the Final. In the Final the met the Seattle Seawolves, who were clearly the 2nd best team all year. Seattle was 6-2-0, with their only 2 losses coming to Glendale. However, after 80 minutes Seattle was crowned MLR Champions and Glendale had to watch them lift the Americas Championship Shield.

So what do you do when you are the best team all year, but fall short in the game that matters most? You make sure that never happens again. As scary as it sounds, the Glendale Raptors got significantly better during the off season. In two of the biggest signings this offseason, Hanco Germishuys and Malon Al-Jiboori both landed in Glendale. Germishuys is the best player in MLR. Last season for Austin, Germishuys led all MLR forwards with 6 tries. That was also good for 3rd overall in MLR. Germishuys’ performance also earned him the distinction of being named openside flanker to the inaugural First All-MLR team.Germishuys is a very powerful ball carrier and elite at the breakdowns making him a threat on both sides of the ball.

Al-Jiboori is one of the USA Eagles top prospects. The 21 year old only has 1 XV cap under his belt, but he has been a force on the Sevens circuit. Al-Jiboori did play one game for the San Diego Legion last season but his commitment to the Eagles Sevens team prevented him from fully committing to MLR. Glendale now has him on a two year deal as they look to settle some unfinished business in the 2019 season. Al-Jiboori has represented USA at the age grade levels in XVs. During that time he has demonstrated an ability to play both flanker and a lock. He is an incredibly dynamic and powerful ball carrier that typically shreds a few tackle before the the defense is forced to commit multiple defenders to bring him down. His speed and ability to draw in the defense could leave a lot of Glendale’s other weapons open.

And Glendale has a lot of weapons. In addition to Germishuys and Al-Jiboori, the Glendale Raptors boast 6 other USA Eagles on their roster. Hooker Zach Fenoglio, lock Brendan Daly, scrumhalf and Raptors captain Shaun Davies, flyhalf Will Magie, centre Chad London, and centre Ata Malifa have all been capped by the Eagles. Additionally, loosehead prop Noah Barker has been capped by Canada. The Glendale Raptors employ a bit of a pick your poison type of offense. You can’t cover everybody and if you leave any Raptor open they will be the one that burns you. With the addition of Germishuys, Glendale now employ 2 of the top 3 try scorers from the 2018 season. Harley Davidson, in addition to having one of the coolest names in sports, scored 6 tries in 2018 good for 2nd in the league. Davidson is an elite winger who possesses a deadly scoring touch. He was a vital part of the Raptors offense in 2018 and that will continue into the 2019 season.

Davidson makes up just a piece of the Raptors incredibly strong back line. Led by the 9-10 combination of Shaun Davies and Will Magie, the Raptors will utilize their explosive speed and creativity to dismantle opposing defenses. They can attack you with pinpoint passing or through the kicking game, and they can adapt easily to whichever one suits them in the moment. Ultimately, an absolute nightmare to defend.

Glendale was clearly the league’s best team last year. They were 2nd overall in tries and total points while simultaneously allowing the least amount of points in the league. Glendale’s defence was spectacular all year and only allowed 165 points, 23 less than 2nd place Seattle. Additionally, they were the only team in MLR to not allow 30 points in a game. The potent offense and stingy defence gave them a whopping +84 point differential that no one was even close to. However, despite having the best defence in the league Glendale conceded 13 penalties per game, the most in MLR. If there is room for improvement it is here. A more disciplined Raptor side could be impenetrable.

Ultimately, the Glendale Raptors were the MLR’s best team in 2018 and there is no reason why they won’t be again. The big question this year will be can they win the big one at the end?

Source: houstonsabercats.com

2018 Record: 1-7-0, 7th Overall, Missed Playoffs

Key Departures: Kyle Sumsion, Justin Allen, Paul Mullen

Key Additions: Ayron Schramm, Charlie Connolly, Santiago Arata

Head Coach: Justin Fitzpatrick

GM: Brian Colona

Any season where you finish last will be a disappointing year. The SaberCats year was especially disappointing. Heading into the 2018 season Houston boasted some of the best overseas talent MLR had to offer. The team featured Osea Kolinisau and Josua Vici, two players from the legendary Fijian sevens team. Yet, they couldn’t seem to truly make anything click and after a 1-1-0 start they dropped their final 6 games of the year.

To be fair, Kolinisau and Vici were terrific. Both of them scored 5 tries, putting them into a tie for 5th in MLR alongside San Diego’s Anthony Salabar. Kolinisau and Vici often lived up to their hype displaying that Fijian flair with highlight reel tries. Sam Windsor, the Australian flyhalf, had 4 tries of his own and combined with his kicking ability (22 conversions and 13 penalties) led the league in total points. Windsor scored 103 points and was the only player in the league to crack the century mark. Kolinisau, Vici, and Windsor all did this on a team that scored just 26 tries and finished last in the MLR. Windsor was lights out of the tee going 22/26 (85%) on conversions and 13/17 (76%) on penalties. Windsor, Vici, and Kolinisau combined for 14 of Houston’s 26 tries or 54%. Three players made up over half off all the Sabercats offensive production. Ultimately, Windsor, Vici, and Kolinisau make up the core of a very solid back line, they just need some help.

For help, Brian Colona set his sights abroad. First, they brought in Irish prop, Charlie Connolly. At just 21 years of age, Connolly is a powerful tighthead prop that has exceptional technique in scrums. Connolly was Ireland’s starting prop for both the U20 Six Nations and U20 World Cup Tournaments. The SaberCats also added Ayron Schramm. Schramm, a No 8, was Germany’s best player during the Rugby World Cup Repechage Tournament and his play earned him a pro contract in Major League Rugby. Schramm has 3 tries in his 6 international caps for Germany and fills a hole in the SaberCat pack left by of Kyle Sumsion’s move to RUNY.

Then there is the Los Teros. Many Uruguayan players will be featured in Major League Rugby this season, but no team really dipped in the Los Teros pool quite like Houston. In total 4 Los Teros players will be joining Houston in 2019 and they are all incredibly experienced. Loosehead prop Mateo Sanguinetti, lock Diego Magno, No 8 Alejandro Nieto, and scrumhalf Santiago Arata combine for 236 caps with Uruguay. The wealth of experience will be beneficial to the SaberCats. Unfortunately, as with many of the Uruguayans around MLR, all Los Teros players will not be available during the Americas Rugby Championship so Houston won’t get their benefit for the entire season. When they are available Los Teros players will be a big boost to the lineup.

As I mentioned, Houston relied heavily on Windsor, Vici, and Kolinisau for any offense. With the addition of Sanguinetti, Magno, Nieto, and Schramm the pack has also been heavily improved. The Houston pack should be able to provide a wider variety of attacking options as well a lending a hand on the defensive side of the ball. Arata will provide a solid 9-10 connection with Windsor. Connor Murphy will also be returning at the scrumhalf position. Following the 2018 season Murphy went back to England and trained with his former club, the London Irish. Murphy should be heading into 2019 as a significantly improved. The battle for the number 9 jersey could be very intriguing. Murphy will get the ball early in the season while Arata is away representing Uruguay at the Americas Rugby Championship. If he plays well to start the year it may be difficult to relegate him to the bench.

Once again on the backs of the Flyin’ Fijians, the Houston Sabercats could be one of the league’s more entertaining teams to watch. Despite what the record may indicate, few teams scored prettier tries than Houston. That should be a trend that continues this year as well. However, they won’t just be entertaining, they will be very comfortable to watch as well. The Houston Sabercats have begun construction on AVEVA Stadium, their new home. AVEVA Stadium will be a rugby specific stadium and feature 3 pitches with the Sabercats home games being featured on the main pitch with the 4,000 seat grandstand. The other two pitches will be multi use but the Sabercats pitch will be used for rugby only. Getting a sport specific stadium is a terrific leap forward for the sport. Houston will be joining Glendale as the only two teams with rugby specific stadiums.

Houston had a very difficult first season in the MLR. They have made some big improvements to the lineup overall and that will lead to more wins. Houston will not go 1-7-0 this year or the 2-14-0 equivalent. However, I still believe that they might be another year or two away from really competing. Ultimately, there still remains a number of teams that are better than Houston and they will miss the postseason again. Despite their improvements, many of their big names won’t be available for the first part of the season due to ARC. However, Houston’s schedule is interesting. In their first 4 games, San Diego will be the only opponent that made the playoffs last year. Houston gets Austin and San Diego to start then the two expansion teams Toronto and New York. Those first 4 games could be crucial for Houston if they look to prove to the MLR that last year will not be repeated.

Thanks for reading Part 1 of the Layman’s Sports Major League Rugby season preview. Part 2 will be available soon and we will take a look at the league’s most improved team, meet one of the new clubs, and check in with one of the top back lines in the league.

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