MLR Season Preview: Seattle, Toronto, Utah

We are just a few days away from the start of the 2019 Major League Rugby season! In the third and final part of our preview, we break down the Seattle Seawolves, Toronto Arrows, and Utah Warriors.

Source: seattleseawolves.com

2018 Record: 6-2-0, 2nd Overall, MLR Champions

Key Departures: Peter Smith, Ray Barkwill, Jeremy Misailegalu

Key Additions: Djustice Sears-Duru, Ben Cima, Roland Suniula, Stephan Coetzee

Head Coach: Anton Moolman

GM: Curry Hitchborn

The Seattle Seawolves will go down in history as the first team to lift the Americas Championship Shield as the inaugural MLR Champions. Led by Phil Mack as their coach and scrum half, Seattle was one of the top teams in MLR throughout the entire season. Their only two losses came to Glendale, however, Seattle came out on top in the game that mattered most. Seattle clearly has their eyes set on repeating as they made some big additions to the squad.

The first is a new coach. Mack will still be a playing assistant coach, but the head coaching duties now fall to Anton Moolman. Moolman is from South Africa where he was the coach of Western Province’s Academy. Moolman is actually credited with the creation of the Western Province Rugby Academy programme that boast many Springbok graduates such as captain Siya Kolisi, Eben Etzebeth, and Steven Kitshoff.

Also amongst the graduates of Moolman’s Western Province Rugby Academy is hooker Stephan Coetzee. The 26-year old has appeared in 27 Super Rugby games for the Stormers, Cheatahs, and Sharks. Most recently Coetzee has been the starting hooker for the Southern Kings in the Pro 14. Seattle possessed arguably the strongest scrum in MLR last season. However, hooker Ray Barkwill will not be returning in 2019 and Coetzee provides an immediate replacement and an upgrade at the position.

The Seawolves’ scrum was one of the best in the league and an option that Phil Mack frequently chose to utilize on penalties. The scrum featured 2 All MLR props in Tim Metcher (first team) and Olive Kilifi (second team) and now a strong 3rd option has been added. Djustice Sears-Duru will be joining the Seattle front row for 2019. Sears-Duru is the third youngest player to ever be capped by Canada. He made his debut at 19 years old and now has 45 caps at just 24 years of age. Sears-Duru has played professionally in the RFU Championship and Pro 14 but returned to Canada last you to be a part of the centralized training program. He also suited up for a number of Ontario Arrows games. Sears-Duru is a loosehead prop while Metcher is a tighthead. Kilifi, 24 Eagles caps, plays both sides of the scrum. This gives Seattle plenty of options in the line-up as either one of these players can be deployed as a second-half sub when fresh legs are needed to close out the game. In most of his caps with Canada, Sears-Duru’s role has been that impact sub. The pack will also feature the return of 2018 First All-MLR team flanker Vili Toluta’u and lock Cam Polson. The new No 8 will be Brad Tucker who joins Seattle after a season with the Manawatu Turbos in the Mitre 10 cup. Ultimately, Seattle will once again have a top scrum in the league.

Coetzee will not be the only Western Province grad on Seattle. Scrumhalf JP Smith is the second product of Moolman’s academy that will be joining the Seawolves. Much like Coetzee, Smith also saw some time with the Southern Kings in 2018 appearing in 2 games. Coetzee is a scrum half and will be seen as welcome relief player-coach Phil Mack. Mack never really had a true backup in 2018 and a result played all 80 minutes in 8 out of the 9 games he started. Mack missed the June 8th game vs Austin due his international duties as Canada played Scotland on June 9th. Ultimately, Mack played 713/720 possible minutes in 2018. Smith will be a welcome addition to the club as he provides a legitimate scrumhalf option off the bench.

First All-MLR team fullback Matt Turner and second All-MLR team winger Brock Staller both return to the back line in 2019. George Barton, William Rasileka, Shalom Suniula, Sequoyah Burke-Combs, Dion Crowder, and Peter Tiberio all return as well. The back line really saw no key departures this offseason, however, that doesn’t mean they didn’t receive an upgrade. Roland Suniula comes over from Austin to join his brother Shalom. Roland has been capped by the Eagles 17 times with the last one coming in 2013. Roland was a key part of Austin’s offense last season with the ball passing through his hands on any of their tries and will form a great centre connection with his brother. The big addition is Ben Cima at flyhalf. USA Rugby’s future is beginning to look very bright and it’s because of players like Cima. Cima is a very dynamic flyhalf who is capable of commanding a game. Cima is excellent with the boot and frequently uses it to apply pressure to the opposing team. Staller will most likely resume conversion and penalty kicking duties this year, but Cima’s in-game kicking ability will provide another element to the Seawolves attack.

As Seattle looks to defend their title in 2019, they will once again find themselves in a battle with the Glendale Raptors for the top spot in MLR. Seattle improved on the strengths of their game and should be a better team in this season. Unfortunately, Glendale got a lot better too. The two teams will clash in a rematch of the Championship game to open their season in round 1 and meet again in round 17. The outcome of those 2 games could determine 1st overall in the standings again.

Source: torontoarrows.com

2019 Expansion Team

Key Players: Mike Sheppard, Lucas Rumball, Theo Sauder, Gaston Mieres, Jack Nay

Head Coach: Chris Silverthorn

GM: Mark Winokur

As the Toronto Arrows enter Major League Rugby they become the first professional rugby union team in Canada. The Arrows are a huge step forward for Canadian rugby and they have put a lot of emphasis on giving Canadian rugby players a place to play the game professional on home soil. Head coach Chris Silverthorn constantly states the importance of having kids dreaming of becoming Arrows. The Arrows have already played games against the Canada Selects and have spent part of their training camp in Langford, BC at the national training centre further strengthening their relationship with Rugby Canada.

That relationship with Rugby Canada really stands out when you take a look at the Toronto Arrows roster. On the Arrows season opening roster, 29 of the 34 players are eligible to play for Canada. 13 of those 29 players have already earned caps with Canada. Canada’s roster for the upcoming Americas Rugby Championship includes 7 Arrows; Guiseppe du Toit, Cole Keith, Kainoa Lloyd, Jamie Mackenzie, Lucas Rumball, Theo Sauder, and Mike Sheppard. Additionally all of the coaching staff are Canadian, including the most capped Canadian player ever, Aaron Carpenter, who will serve as the assistant coach. Through both the players and coaching staff, the Arrows have truly embraced being Canada’s MLR team.

That relationship with Rugby Canada really stands out when you take a look at the Toronto Arrows roster. On the Arrows season opening roster, 29 of the 34 players are eligible to play for Canada. 13 of those 29 players have already earned caps with Canada. Canada’s roster for the upcoming Americas Rugby Championship includes 7 Arrows; Guiseppe du Toit, Cole Keith, Kainoa Lloyd, Jamie Mackenzie, Lucas Rumball, Theo Sauder, and Mike Sheppard. Additionally all of the coaching staff are Canadian, including the most capped Canadian player ever, Aaron Carpenter, who will serve as the assistant coach. Through both the players and coaching staff, the Arrows have truly embraced being Canada’s MLR team.

Chris Silverthorn and Mark Winokur have been the masterminds behind the Ontario Blues dynasty in the Canadian Rugby Championship. This is where one of the major advantages the Arrows have going into their first MLR season lies. Despite being an expansion team into MLR, most of the Arrows staff and players have been together for years and therefore, there is plenty of familiarity. Ultimately, there is 23 Ontario Blues products on the Arrows roster many of whom have played under Silverthorn and Winokur before.

The Arrows will be led by Lucas Rumball. Rumball was part of the Ontario Blues side that captured their 6th MacTier Cup in 8 years in 2018. Rumball has earned 26 caps for Canada and has scored 4 tries. He also served as Canada’s captain in a game against Russia. Rumball is a dominant flanker who completely took over games as he was instrumental in Canada qualifying for the Rugby World Cup. His play at the Repechage Tournament, particularly his dominance in the rucks, even earned him some comparisons to Richie McCaw from the broadcast team.

Rumball will be joined by some elite talent in the back row. One of the Arrows 5 overseas signings is No. 8 Jack Nay of Hertfordshire, England. At just 21 years of age Nay could be a dominant force in the MLR. Nay was developed through the Saracens academy system. Saracens employ some of the best back row players in the world making it incredibly difficult for Nay to find playing time with the big club. Ultimately, in an effort to find Nay some game time, Saracens have loaned him to Toronto. Nay will be looking to dominate MLR and perhaps earn another look from Saracens.

Then there is the legend. John Moonlight will be coming out of retirement to join the Arrows in their inaugural season. Moonlight is one of the best Canadian Sevens players of all time. He has 116 tries in 318 games in the World Rugby Sevens series and has racked up a few Pan Am Games Gold Medals. However, Moonlight will only be joining the team part time as he looks to pursue his firefighting career. When Moonlight is absent the back row will feature Marcello Wainwright and Peter Milazzo, both of whom were on the 2018 Ontario Blues that took home the MacTier Cup.

The back row is just a piece of what will be an incredibly strong scrum for Toronto. The Arrows are very deep at prop. Rob Brouwer, Tom Dolezel, and Cole Keith have all been capped by Canada. The Arrows also have a partnership with the Hurricanes (Super Rugby). The Hurricanes helped the Arrows scout players in New Zealand. One of those players was Morgan Mitchell. Mitchell, 25 years old, has been playing in the Mitre 10 Cup for 4 years. During the 2018 season Mitchell scored 4 tries in just 8 games for the Southland Stags. Ultimately, the Arrows have 4 stellar options at prop between Brouwer, Dolezel, Keith, and Mitchell. This gives the Arrows plenty of depth in the event of injury or Keith playing in the ARC. The hooker position will be filled by Steven Ng and Andrew Quattrin. Quatrrin is another Ontario Blue that captured the MacTier Cup and Ng is from the centralized development program which has given him the opportunity to play with Keith at the Under20 World Cup.

Rounding out the scrum in the second row will be captain Mike Sheppard and Paul Ciulini. Sheppard was the captain for the Ontario Arrows during their exhibition season last year and has earned all 3 of his Canada caps at the Repechage tournament. Ciulini is also a veteran of the Canadian national team collecting 8 caps in his career. They will be backed up by brothers Tom and Josh Van Horne both of whom have won championships with the Ontario Blues and Brantford Harlequins.

When asked about their style of rugby, Toronto staff bring up words like “lunchboxes” and “hardhats”. This team will work incredibly hard and be a very physical team to play against. Lucas Rumball and the Arrows pack will be at the forefront of the physicality.

The back line features a number of capped Canadians. Scrumhalf Jamie Mackenzie, centre Guiseppe du Toit, wingers Dan Moor and Kainoa Lloyd, and fullback Theo Sauder have all been capped by Canada. They will be joined by wingers Leandro Levias and Gaston Miers both are members of Los Teros, Uruguay’s national team. There is also a New Zealand contingent as a result of the Hurricanes partnership. Flyhalf Sam Malcolm played for the Hurricanes U20 program as well a Manawatu in the Mitre 10 Cup. Centre Spencer Jones grew up in New Zealand playing for Hamilton Old Boys but was born in Canada. He had a stint with Austin Blacks before joining the Arrows. Fullback Aaron McLelland played his university rugby in New Zealand, but has already suited up for the Ontario Arrows last year. Ultimately, between the Canadian internationals, Los Teros, and Kiwis, the Arrows have an incredibly deep back line. Sauder has demonstrated an exceptional counter attack ability and an ability to read offensive plays. Sauder will be able to get his wingers involved in those counter attacks. No one in MLR has better wingers than Toronto. Moor, Lloyd, Levias, and Mieres combine for 157 caps and that number will only be going up with ARC. If the forwards employ that lunchbox and hardhats style and get get teams pinned deep, they will really want to keep the clearance kick away from Sauder and the wingers.

The Arrows have been dealt an interesting schedule. The first half of the season is all road games and the second half will be all 8 home games. Their first 4 home games will be at York Lions Stadium and the final 4 at Lamport Stadium which is also home to the Toronto Wolfpack of the RFL Championship. Nearly no travelling in the second half of the season could be very advantageous to a playoff push.

And they will be making that playoff push. Toronto is too loaded with talent to not be thinking about the playoffs. The only issue the roster has is that they are possibly a little too talented. No team in MLR will be hit harder by ARC than Toronto. Toronto will have 9 players away at ARC with du Toit, Keith, Lloyd, Mackenzie, Rumball, Sauder, Sheppard representing Canada and Leivas and Mieres representing Uruguay (most of that talented winger group I just talked about). Jack Nay will also be absent for the beginning of the season as he will still be finishing up the European season. Toronto is deep so they should be able to get by without these players to start the year. However, once they all return, Toronto will be incredibly dangerous.

The outlook for the Arrows season should be incredibly positive. They have a very talented lineup and will be playing a system that has been successful for years. That system is also very familiar to the players who have already been with the Ontario Blues for years. Chemistry will not be an issue and by all accounts the new guys are gelling nicely. Eight straight home games to end the year may be a blessing as they push for the playoffs. It will be a battle with San Diego and RUNY to get there, but the Arrows may be the ones who claim that final spot.

Source: warriorsrugby.com

2018 Record: 3-5-0, 4th Overall, Lost in Semi-Final

Key Departures: Paul Lasike, Kurt Morath, David Tameilau

Key Additions: Huluholo Mo’ungola, Josh Reeves, James Semple, Gannon Moore

Head Coach: Alf Daniels

GM: Kimball Kjar

Utah Warriors’ winger Tonata Lauti led the MLR with 8 tries last season. Lauti was part of a potent offense that put up a league leading 269 points. Additionally, Utah led the MLR in tries per game with 4.77, and points per game with 32.22. Utah’s offense is ultimately what got them to the playoffs. In the battle for the final playoff spot 3 teams had 3-5-0 records (Utah, Austin, and NOLA). Utah managed to pick up the try bonus point in 7 of 8 games. Combined with the bonus point loss (3), Utah had over two full wins worth of bonus points and were propelled up the standings.

The Utah Warriors play an incredibly high tempo style of rugby. They are always on offense regardless of where the ball actually is on the field. Players like Lauti and fullback Don Pati have amazing abilities to create offense out of seemingly nothing. Utah led the MLR in linebreaks by a mile and broken tackles by even more. Without a doubt, Utah’s style of play can bring the crowd to their feet. However, there is a downside. Utah also led the league in turnovers, general errors, and were top 3 in handling errors. They also allowed 274 points, the second most in MLR. The high risk-high reward style of play brought fans to their feet, but left Utah very susceptible to counter attacks.

The Warriors suffered some serious losses on their roster this offseason. Paul Lasike put in a stellar 2018 year for the Warriors. The former Chicago Bear has 9 caps for the Eagles and was able to use the first MLR season as a stepping stone to Europe’s highest ranks and he signed a contract with Harlequins of the Gallagher Premiership. The Warriors will drastically miss Lasike’s skillset and leadership. The Warriors also lost Tongan flyhalf Kurt Morath to the Doncaster Knights in the RFU Championship. Players making the jump from MLR to the Premiership is a big endorsement for the skill level in MLR, however these are still big losses for the Warriors.

Perhaps the biggest changes for Utah came in the off-field personnel. GM Kemball Kjar and head coach Alf Daniels have both adapted their philosophy of the game and re-evaluated the personnel around them. Three new coaches have been hired; Stevie Scott to coach the forwards, James Semple to coach the backs, and Mark Drown will be the team manager. Scott is a former assistant coach of the Scottish national team, Semple was the development coach for Waikato, and Drown is a former manager of the Fijian Sevens squad. Semple, just 28 years old, will also be suiting up at fly half for the Warriors. A big area that the new coaching staff has targeted is the conditioning of the team. Players have been commenting on how much harder the training camp has been and how their physical fitness has been drastically improved. The coaching staff will also want to spend time working on the defense. Utah joined MLR late last year so they didn’t get to work conditioning and systems before hand. With a strong new coaching staff in place and a full training camp, the Warriors should be a significantly more prepared for 2019. With new coaches also comes a new squad. 21 players return, but the Warriors welcome 18 new players.

The biggest new addition to the team will be Josh Reeves. Reeves is originally from New Zealand, but plays for Brazil’s national team after qualifying through residency. Reeves will be Morath’s replacement at flyhalf. Reeves is well known for his exceptional kicking ability. He frequently hits long range goals and is capable of pinning teams deep in their own end after penalties. His kicking ability is his trademark as most his highlight reel plays involve kicks.

Utah also added Huluholo Mo’ungola to the scrum. Mo’ungola spent last year with the Life West Gladiators of the Pacific Rugby Championship. He has been capped by the Eagles, but was not announced to the Eagles ARC side, so Utah could be getting his full benefit all year long. Mo’ungola will be joined by fellow Eagle Angus McLellan in the front row. These two will be relied on heavily this year as on the entire 29 man roster, there is only 5 props. The other three are former U20 Springbok Franco Van den Berg, Utah Valley University's Penivea Palhulu, and former Colorado State defensive tackle Alex Tucci. If either one of these players gets hurt, Utah could be in a lot of trouble at the prop position.

The rest of the scrum faces the same depth issues. BYU hooker Alex Vorster and former Waikato hooker Logan Daniels are the only two hookers listed on the roster. Capped Eagle locks John Cullen and Matt Jensen are backed up by Tongan Saia Uhila and Fijian Puna Vuli. That is it for the second row as well and Uhila might miss most of the season with a bicep injury. The back row is similar. No 8 Maika Hafoka has a broken leg and will be out for the majority of the season leaving just 4 healthy back row players (Ara Elkington, Jackson Kaka, Kendrick Scott, and Lance Williams). The scrum could be an issue just because of how few players the Warriors have. If injuries start to pile up, they could be in trouble.

However, their back line will have plenty of depth, as the overwhelming majority of Utah’s roster is backs. In addition to Reeves, the back line features a handful of internationally capped players. Centres Gavin Moore and Calvin Whiting as well as fullback Josh Whippy are all capped by the Eagles. Winger Fetu’u Vainikolo has been capped 28 times by Tonga. The dynamic back row was the strength of the Utah Warriors last year.Other returning members include Tonata Lauti, the league’s leading try scorer, and fullback Don Pati who was electrifying in the counter attack. Morath and Lasike are gone, but the majority of last years dominate attacking line is still in Utah. Additionally, Josh Whippy missed the entire season last year with a broken leg and may miss the first few games this year as well. Once he returns to the lineup, Utah will have even more options for their deadly attacking game. Many of Utah’s newest additions will also be able to contribute the Warriors dynamic attack. Gannon Moore will join the Warriors as a versatile centre or wing option. Moore has 2 caps with the Eagles and will be adding more at the ARC. James Semple will bring an interesting dynamic to the flyhalf position as he will be doubling as the backs coach. Many of the attacking options the Warriors utilize will be designed by Semple and he will likely be calling many of the plays if he is on the pitch.

The Utah Warriors may be able to get off to a strong start in 2019. Utah is the team least affected by the Americas Rugby Championship. They will only be without Josh Reeves (Brazil) and Gannon Moore (USA) for the tournament. Having nearly a full powered lineup could be a big advantage against teams with 5-7 of their starters missing. Utah will be looking to get off to a great start and set the tone for the year.

Ultimately, Utah is going to struggle this year. They made the playoffs in 2018 but were still just 3-5-0. They also lost 2 of their best players in Paul Lasike and Kurt Morath. None of the new players are significant upgrades at their position. In the pack, there may not be the depth to last a full 16 game season. If injuries start to add up the Warriors may be in trouble. The defense will still be the big question. Last year the scored the most tries and most total points, yet remained below 500. At some point, you also need to stop tries. If they have addressed this issue in training camp things could be different this year but we will have to see. The additions of Rugby United New York and the Toronto Arrows make it increasingly harder to make the playoffs. Only 4 teams still make the playoffs, but 2 more teams miss out. A below 500 record will not get it done this year. Unfortunately, the Warriors will not be returning to the playoffs.

The MLR season kicks off this weekend with the Toronto Arrows visiting NOLA Gold in the first game of the season on saturday. I hope you enjoyed reading the MLR season previews. If you did, don’t forget to check in with Layman’s Sports for our continuing coverage of the MLR during the season!

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