2021 MLR Season Preview: Canadian Edition
Source: Jeff Chan / Toronto Arrows
It’s finally match week!
After a year-long pause due to the global pandemic, Major League Rugby will kick off the 2021 season on Saturday, March 20th. Matchups filled with Canadian talent will become a constant theme throughout the 2021 MLR season as a record number of Canadians populate the 12 clubs. In total, 59 Canadians are currently signed to MLR teams with at least one representative on each team. Of course, the Toronto Arrows lead the way with 27, while the Seattle Seawolves continue to set the pace for the American clubs with 5.
Ultimately, there will be plenty of Canadian talent in the league to excite fans and give Kingsley Jones plenty of tape to look over.
New England Free Jacks
Canadians: Josh Larsen (lock)
The Free Jacks are probably the most transformed team in MLR. The 2021 off-season say plenty of turnover following a bit of a rough start to 2020. A brand-new front row, new halfback combination is just some of the highlights.
The one constant in the pack is captain Josh Larsen. The 6’5”, 250lbs lock is the heart and soul of Free Jack rugby. In the club’s brief history, Larsen has started in every match and that trend is likely to continue in 2021. You don’t bench your captain after all. Larsen demonstrates an incredible work rate on both sides of the ball. He scored two tries in 2020.
The rest of New England’s locks include returnees Jackson Thiebes, Ronan McCusker, Conor Kindregan, and one new addition Matt Wirken. The Free Jacks starting pack to take on the Giltinis in week one features an entirely new front row and nearly all-new back row, with Larsen, Thiebes, and flanker Evan Geist being the only three to have donned the glorious collared kit before. Larsen will be one of New England’s most vital players, both for his skill set and the leadership ability to bring this new pack together.
Canadians: Kyle Baillie (lock), Eric Howard (hooker)
The eastern conference is loaded with not only Canadian talent, but Canadian captains as well. Lock Kyle Baillie gets the honour of leading the Gold into the 2021 season. Baillie is the second Canadian captain in Gold history following hooker Eric Howard. Howard captained the Gold during the 2019 season. Ultimately that gave us the awesome bit of trivia that in the first professional rugby game in Canada both teams were captained by Canadians.
Baillie and Howard with both proximately feature in a loaded NOLA Gold pack. Howard is joined in the front row by Matt Harmon on his loosehead side and Dino Waldren at tighthead. Baillie is joined by plenty of international caps in the engine room. Ignacio Dotti has represented Uruguay 50 times and Kane Thompson has earned 33 Samoan caps. Another option is Billy Stewart who started in 3 of NOLA’s five games last year. Ultimately, there should be quite the competition to line up next to Baillie in the engine room. The Gold’s pack is rounded out by a back row led by Eagle Cam Dolan, Devin Short, Nikola Bursic, Andrew Guerra, and Malcolm May.
Howard was 2nd on the team in try scoring in 2019 with 9 trailing only Tristan Blewett’s 12. A big reason for that was the effectiveness of NOLA’s pack and their strong maul. That maul was often started with Howard finding his favourite lineout target in Baillie.
A loaded group of backs featuring Holden Yungert, Robbie Coleman, and JP du Plessis will ensure that Baillie and Howard will be leading one of the East’s top teams.
Old Glory DC
Luke Campbell (backrow), Doug Fraser (centre/wing), Ciaran Hearn (centre)
Old Glory had an interesting 2020. They were smashed by NOLA in the season opener, then rattled off four straight wins before the season shut down. Their star acquisition of Tendai “the Beast” Mtawarira is no longer with the club. Fortunately, for Old Glory, their Canadian stars are returning in 2021. Doug Fraser was Old Glory’s leading try scorer in 2020, picking up three tries in five games including the historic first try in the franchise’s history. Legendary centre Ciaran Hearn, who holds the Canadian record for most caps by a back with 73, also returns for his second stint in the US capital.
There will be a third Canadian rocking the famed American flag kit in 2021. Back-rower Luke Campbell returns to MLR following a brief hiatus in 2020. By signing with Old Glory, Campbell becomes the first former Toronto Arrow to play elsewhere in MLR.
Old Glory was due to have a few pre-season matches with New England and Rugby ATL. Unfortunately, COVID-19 got in the way of those. What we did get to see was a blue vs white intrasquad game. In that scrimmage, coach Andrew Douglas lined a centre combination of Hearn at the inside centre and Fraser at outside centre. Fraser was utilized as a winger in 2020, but his best position is arguably centre. Hearn and Fraser linking up will certainly be fun to watch for Canadian fans. Standing in the way of that will likely be co-captain Thretton Palamo.
Palamo boasts 19 Eagles caps to his name and ultimately, is an absolute monster (especially with the ball in hand). Hearn and Palamo were the 12-13 combination last year and it may be difficult to defer from that in 2021. Ultimately, Hearn-Palamo with Fraser on the wing may be the best option as their other wingers are both young prospects D’monte Noble and Sam Cusano.
Campbell will be part of a loaded back row that will also include former Glasgow Warrior Callum Gibbins, breakout player of 2020 Mungo Mason, and Jamason Fa’anana-Schultz.
Canadians: Matt Heaton (flanker), Connor Keys (lock)
The third Canadian captain in the East is flanker Matt Heaton. Heaton wasted no time showing why he was selected as the captain. Heaton scored the franchise’s first try while leading his team to an epic comeback victory over the Warriors in their first game! Heaton is a beast on both sides of the ball. He can carry the ball effectively, is always following up the ball carrier in support, efficient tackler, can create turnovers, demonstrates an exceptional work rate, and often the first to a ruck. Heaton will anchor the Rugby ATL back row, likely playing with former Raptor Conor Cook on the blindside and Jason Damm at 8.
Conor Keys looked to suffer an injury in the Silver vs Black intrasquad game. Hopefully, it is nothing serious. Keys was kept out of the lineup for a pre-season match with the Warriors, a match Rugby ATL won 15-13. Keys is imposing lock at 6’5”, 265lbs. He has played a key role in Canada’s lineout on the world stage. However, lock is a deep position in Atlanta and that could make things interesting for Keys as his spot in the starting lineup is not locked up. Keys only started two of Rugby ATL’s five games in 2020. With Johan Momsen, Marno Redelinghuys, and Mike Matarazzo also in the mix at lock, Keys may find himself in a similar situation in 2021.
Rugby United New York
Canadians: Quinn Ngawati (centre)
RUNY enters 2021 with a few question marks following the resignation of coach Greg McWilliams on the eve of the season. New GM Stephan Lewis made a number of big acquisitions during the off-season such as former All Black scrumhalf Andy Ellis, Bay of Plenty flyhalf Dan Hollinshead, USA Eagle and god of lineouts Nick Civetta, with Samu Tawake, Wilton Rebolo, and Zak Taulafo bolstering the front row. The biggest signing (in my eyes anyway) is centre Quinn Ngawati.
Ngawati joins RUNY from the Pacific Pride program, but perhaps more famously, from rugby league’s Toronto Wolfpack. After the Wolfpack pulled out of Super League, Ngawati returned to rugby union. Ngawati is a powerful centre with the ability to run around you or go through you, whichever is the best option. Ngawati is considered one of Canada’s brightest prospects and he joins a growing list of Canadian centres in MLR.
RUNY’s other centres are Chris Mattina, Troy Lockyear, and Will Leonard. It’s a deep group. Ngawati may not start right away, but I can see him forcing his way into the starting lineup on a regular basis by season’s end.
Canadians: Rob Brouwer (prop), Cole Keith (prop), Pat Lynott (prop), Marc-Antoine Ouellet (prop), Tyler Rowland (prop),
Chris Atkinson (prop/hooker), Jack McRogers (hooker), Steven Ng (hooker), Andrew Quattrin (hooker)
Paul Ciulini (lock), Kolby Francis (lock/eightman), Mike Sheppard (lock), Adrian Wadden (lock)
Mason Flesch (flanker/eightman), Lucas Rumball (flanker), Marcello Wainwright (flanker/eightman), Siaki Vikilani (flanker/eightman)
Ross Braude (scrumhalf), Andrew Ferguson (scrumhalf), Jason Higgins (scrumhalf), Jamie Mackenzie (scrumhalf) Will Kelly (flyhalf)
Guiseppe du Toit (centre), Spencer Jones (centre), Ben LeSage (centre), Mitch Richardson (centre)
John Sheridan (wing), Shawn Windsor (fullback/flyhalf), Pat Parfrey (utility back)
We finish off the Canadian preview with Canada’s team! There has been plenty of talk about the Arrows’ move to Atlanta as COVID-19 continues to limit cross-border travel. Will it have a negative impact on the team is away from home? To that I say; you remember what their 2019 and 2020 seasons looked like right? There is an argument to be made that the Arrows are the best road team in the league. So, whether the pitch is in Toronto, Atlanta, or on Easter Island I think they will be alright. Secondly, have you seen this roster?
The Arrows continue to be the deepest team in MLR. Their biggest departures were captain Dan Moor and flyhalf Sam Malcolm. They filled their roster spots with Los Pumas duo Manuel Montero and Joaquín Tuculet. Loose Moor and Malcolm and somehow get better? That just scratches the surface of the squad.
Other international additions this year include prop Gastón Cortés and fullback Juan Cruz González. New Canadian acquisitions include budding stars Adrian Wadden and Siaki Vikilani, scrumhalves Ross Braude and Jason Higgins, Vanier Cup Champion Marc-Antoine Ouellet, and new Pacific Pride reinforcements Chris Atkinson and Mason Flesch.
The front row has taken some hits as the season approaches. First prop Richie Asiata was transferred to Queensland Reds in Super Rugby. Rob Brouwer will not be joining the team in Atlanta for personal reasons, and Steven Ng has suffered a long-term injury. MLR’s best tighthead prop in 2020, Cole Keith will convert to the loosehead side. Jack McRogers will slide up into Ng’s spot as the backup hooker for Andrew Quattrin. Cortés will mentor a group of young Canadian props in Tyler Rowland, Ouellet, and Atkinson.
The engine room looks to be mighty competitive with Paul Ciulini, Mike Sheppard, Adrian Wadden, Kolby Francis all vying for playing time. All reports indicate that Wadden has looked impressive both at Arrows’ camp and the Rugby Canada High-performance camp.
The back row will feature the East’s fourth Canadian (co) captain as Lucas Rumball takes over the duties from Moor. He will operate on the open side with Tomas de la Vega at blind side and Manuel Diana at 8. Ultimately, de la Vega, Rumball, and Diana is one of the scariest back rows in MLR. All three are outstanding anywhere you need them to be. Lineouts, breakdowns, tackling, and powerful ball carriers. They also have a great make-your-life-miserable-ness about them too. To top it off, they are backed up by Flesch, Marcello Wainwright, and Siaki Vikilani.
The backs feature some new faces, but still, plenty of continuity. Two new Canadian scrumhalves join the fold Jason Higgins and Ross Braude join Andrew Ferguson and Jamie Mackenzie in the Arrows mix. Ultimately, it is an incredibly deep group. Ferguson may find himself atop the depth chart this year, but he should receive some competition from Higgins and Braude for the 9 jersey.
Former u20 All Black Tayler Adams will once again wear the 10 jersey in Toronto, with Will Kelly serving as backup and Shawn Windsor rounds out the group. Kelly continues to be one of Canada’s top flyhalves. Kelly will likely find himself coming off the bench in his appearances. Both Adams and Kelly are goal kickers, which is something that will need to be sorted out in Malcolm’s absence. I’m not saying this is not sorted out, just that I do not know who the new goal kicker is.
There are plenty of options for kickers including centre Guiseppe du Toit. He will be joined in the Arrows midfield by new co-captain Ben LeSage. Du Toit and LeSage are proving to be a top centre combination in MLR. Both players are not only excellent with ball in hand but are two of the best defensive centres in the league. The scary thing is that they are backed up by Spencer Jones and Mitch Richardson. I thought Richardson was poised for a big breakout year in 2020, unfortunately, that looks to have been postponed to 2021.
The Arrows outside backs feature plenty of South American flair. Montero, Gastón Mieres, Leandro Leivas, and Johnny Sheridan make up a dynamic group of wingers that is sure to give opposing defences nightmares. Tuculet, Pat Parfrey, Gonzalez will operate in the 15 jersey. Montero and Tuculet are without a doubt the club’s biggest off-season signing. However, they only recently finished quarantining in Toronto and have only been able to participate in training for a week. Arrows fans may have to wait a little longer before seeing them in the lineup.
The final big addition to the squad is Wales and Lions attack coach Rob Howley, who joins the team as part of his deal with Rugby Canada. Howley has one of the best-attacking minds in the world and I’m fascinated by what type of influence he will have on the club.
Ultimately, the Arrows are shaping up to once again be the top team in the Eastern Conference. The squad features both the talent and the depth to make a push for the Shield.
Canadians: Moe Abdelmonem (Flanker), Cole Davis (wing), Jeff Hassler (wing), Reegan O’Gorman (lock)
In 2020 the AG’s lone Canadian representation was Moe Abdelmonem. The turnover machine will now have some company as lock Reegan O’ Gorman and a pair of wingers, Cole Davis and Jeff Hassler have joined the club.
After a strong (yet brief) 2020 season, Abdelmonem looks to have secured a spot in the starting lineup on Harris’ squad. Abdelmonem was among the top of the league in breakdown steals last year and his form looks to have carried over into the 2021 pre-season. He has demonstrated a god ball-carrying ability and was instrumental in setting up fellow back row Dom Akina’s try in a pre-season tilt with Los Angeles. Austin has a solid back row that also features Akina, Cam Dodson, Dom Bailey, Maclean Jones, and Michael de Waal. It’s deep, and there is no shortage of talent in the back row.
The next Canadian addition is in the pack. Reegan O’Gorman returns to North America after a stint in New Zealand. O’Gorman will be looking to put his hand up for some national team selection, but first, he may have to contend with an absolutely loaded engine room in Austin. O’Gorman will compete for playing time alongside former London Irish lock Sebastian de Chaves, Christian Ostberg returns to Austin after a stint in France, and 8 capped All Black Isaac Ross. Dodson can also cover lock if needed. O’Gorman has yet to make an appearance during Austin’s pre-season with de Chaves and Ostberg looking to have a hold of the 4 and 5 jerseys heading into the opening week.
Austin’s backline is deep. Scary deep. A big reason for that is 2021 off-season acquisitions such as Bryce Campbell, Mack Mason, and the number 1 draft choice Connor Mooneyham. Among the big additions were Canadian wingers Jeff Hassler and Cole Davis. Hassler joins the Gilgronis from Seattle while Davis joins from the Canadian sevens program. Davis has picked up try in the pre-season, while Hassler appears to have been sidelined throughout the pre-season. The group of wingers in Austin is as loaded as the back row with All Black Frank Halai, Roderick Watters, and Mooneyham joining Hassler and Davis. Hassler will likely find himself in the starting XV when he is available, but in the meantime, Davis will take his spot.
Canadians: Nik Hildebrand (prop), Liam Murray (Prop), Robbie Povey (flyhalf/fullback), Crosby Stewart (scrumhalf)
The Houston SaberCats really took a big interest in Canadian youth this off-season. Their only move of the 2020 Collegiate Draft was to trade both their picks to Utah in exchange for flyhalf/fullback Robbie Povey. Next, Paul Healy used his pre-existing relationship with Pacific Pride head coach Jamie Cudmore to load up on some young Canadians. In the front row, loosehead prop Liam Murray and tighthead prop Nik Hildebrand will be making their professional debuts in 2021. Hildebrand was actually slated to join the SaberCats in 2020, but COVID got in the way of that. The final addition from the Pacific Pride Program was scrumhalf, Crosby Stewart.
Of the four Canadians, only Murray and Hildebrand featured in the SaberCats two pre-season matchups vs the NOLA Gold and Austin Gilgronis. Murray started the match with NOLA, while Hildebrand came off the bench in both games. Coming off the bench is likely where both Murray and Hildebrand will see the bulk of their playing time in 2021. On the loosehead side, Murray will have to contend with Val Lee-Lo and Nicolás Solveyra for playing time. Hildebrand’s fellow tight heads include Charlie Connolly and capped Georgian Nikoloz Khatiashvili.
Povey and Stewart have yet to appear in either preseason match. Stewart seems to find himself in a bit of a log jam at scrumhalf. SaberCats captain De Wet Roos is the clear choice to wear the 9 jersey in Houston. Zachary Short was already the likely backup as Sam Windsor, Kieran Farmer, Taylor Howden, and Povey can all play flyhalf (Short’s other position). The Dallas Jackals pulling out of the 2021 season also handed Houston South Korean sevens player Jinho Mun. Roos, Short, and Mun all made appearances at scrumhalf during the preseason. Stewart will get a great chance to develop in a professional environment, however, I’m wary of how much playtime he may get.
Povey came over in that previously mentioned trade for Houston’s two draft picks. Povey can cover both flyhalf and fullback. He has a powerful boot, which will be valuable on a team that enjoys the kicking game. As mentioned above, the SaberCats flyhalf depth is covered pretty well by Windsor, Farmer, and Howden, who all made pre-season appearances at the position. Povey will likely lineup as a fullback, but may find himself behind Zach Pangelinan on the depth chart. Centre Matias Freyre is also capable of playing in the outside backs.
Canadians: Lindsey Stevens (hooker), Corey Thomas (flanker), DTH van der Merwe (winger)
Adam Frier and Darren Coleman have assembled quite the roster in LA. The absolutely loaded roster includes Wallabies’ legends Adam Ashley-Cooper and Matt Giteau, Exeter Chiefs lock Dave Dennis, Glenn Bryce and Adam Ashe from the Glasgow Warriors, Connacht’s Luke Carty, Melbourne Rebels’ Angus Cottrell and Bill Meakes, and that isn’t even mentioning the Canadians!
The most proficient try scorer in Canadian history, DTH van der Merwe returns to North America for his MLR debut. Lindsey Stevens finds himself on his third MLR team after stints in Houston and NOLA. Born in Australia, Stevens is eligible for both the USA and Canada through his heritage. Corey Thomas is another Australian who qualifies for Canada through his father. It’s no secret that the Giltinis will have a heavy Aussie flavour to them, but it appears Canada will still get to benefit. Thomas made his Super Rugby debut for the Sunwolves just prior to the pandemic.
Van der Merwe finds himself a key cog in the Giltinis loaded, star-studded, backline. In the Giltinis pre-season matchup with Austin, the backline Coleman deployed was; 9. Harrison Goddard, 10. Matt Giteau, 11. John Ryberg, 12. Bill Meakes, 13. Adam Ashley-Cooper, 14. DTH van der Merwe, and 15. Glenn Bryce. Have fun with that Western Conference defence coaches. Van der Merwe is one of the best finishers in the world and he should get plenty of opportunities in 2021.
Stevens and Thomas being domestic players could be a huge advantage for them as far as playing time is concerned. The Giltinis made a few trades and have two extra foreign player slots bringing their total to 12. The Giltinis have a heavy foreign presence. Ultimately that means, many North American players may find themselves in the lineup out of necessity. If the Giltinis plan on using all 12 of those spots each week and a North American player gets hurt, the next man-up needs to be North American and that might involve some creative lineup shuffling. However, this entire Giltinis lineup could be subject to change as salary cap troubles may force some late, and unwanted, roster moves from Frier in order to comply.
The Giltinis also have a bonus Canadian. Marc Carter will serve as the club’s performance analyst and will be joining the Rugby Canada staff in that same role.
San Diego Legion
Canadians: Travis Larsen (Eightman), Michael Smith (flanker), Josh Thiel (centre)
The Legion has upped their Canadian representation for the 2021 season. Centre Josh Thiel will now be joined by a pair of backrowers in Travis Larsen and Michael Smith. Larsen joins his third team in as many years having previously suited up for the Austin Elite and Old Glory DC. Smith is on his first professional contract. The UBC Thunderbird captain has represented Canada at the U20 level. At 22 years old, Smith will join a packed back row alongside Larsen.
Theil may benefit a bit from the departures of Ma’a Nonu and JP du Plessis. The Legion’s centre depth in 2020 was mind-blowing, but you can’t help but feel it took a bit of a hit this year. However, their absence may open the door for Thiel to get some more playing time as Ryan Matyas and Dylan Audsley now step up into the first-choice slots.
San Diego’s back row is impressive. Larsen and Smith are joined by the legendary Chris Robshaw, Jasa Veremalua, Psalm Wooching, Chris Turori, and Tevita Tameilau. Ultimately, it could be difficult for Smith to get in much playing time outside of drawing into the lineup due to Robshaw, Wooching, or Veremalua being unavailable. However, the opportunity to train with and learn for players of that calibre could be worth its weight in gold. Larsen will find himself battling with 15 capped Eagle Tameilau. If Larsen is unable to win that 8 jersey, he could be utilized as an impact sub for the Legion.
Canadians: George Barton (centre), Jake Ilnicki (prop), Nakai Penny (flanker), Djustice Sears-Duru (prop), Nick Taylor (centre/fullback)
The Seawolves roster has taken a bit of a hit this off-season. Key departures are Vili Toluta’u, Jeremy Lenaerts, and Canadian Jeff Hassler has found a new club in Austin. To make matters worst another star Canadian winger Brock Staller has left the team alongside hooker Stephan Coetzee at the last moment. Despite the loss of Hassler and Staller, there is still plenty of Canadian content on the Seawolves.
Only one new Canadian will grace the Seawolves this year. Nick Taylor was selected 17th overall by the Seawolves in the 2020 MLR Draft. Taylor is a product of Lindenwood University where he played centre and fullback. Centre is incredibly deep on Seattle, so Taylor is more likely to see playing time behind Mat Turner at fullback.
Nakai Penny had a stellar 2020 before the shutdown. He scored two tries and demonstrated an immense work rate. Penny will be looking to build off that momentum in an attempt to put his hand up for national team selection for the RWC 2023 qualifiers. Games against other Canadian open side flankers like Toronto’s Lucas Rumball and Rugby ATL’s Matt Heaton should be circled on Penny’s calendar as a moment to prove himself.
Barton finds himself in the midst of a team that has centre depth for days. Joey Iosefa, Ross Neal, Shalom Suniula, JP Aguirre, and Kieran Joyce all join Barton in the midfield. Barton came in and out of the starting lineup in 2020. He may find himself in a similar situation this year. Seattle gets a healthy Ross Neal back and he is probably fresher than most MLR players having returned to the London Irish for a stint in the 2020 season. Suniula was the captain in the two championship seasons. Although he played a few different positions in 2020 he was a constant in the Seawolves starting backline. Mix in all the options the Seawolves have, and Barton will need to be competing for game time week in and week out.
Seattle will have a familiar group of front-rowers in 2021. Sears-Duru, Ilnicki, Kellen Gordon, Mike Shepherd, and Tim Metcher all return to defend the title. New additions include Namibian capped Obert Nortjé, Freddy Tafuna, and Henry Hall. Sears-Duru started every game for the Seawolves as one of the top looseheads in MLR. Ilnicki found himself battling with Metcher as the two split time in the 3 jersey. To begin the 2021 season, it will likely be much of the same until either Ilnicki or Metcher grabs a permanent hold on the kit.