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Written By: Adam McQueen
After ten rounds of gruelling competition, the Major League Rugby playoff picture is set. The competition will conclude its inaugural campaign with a two-week Championship Series starting this weekend at Infinity Park, Colorado.
Utah, the only team to secure their place during the final round of the regular season, will have the unenviable task of taking on table-toppers Glendale at their home stadium. Meanwhile, Seattle and San Diego will clash for the first time since the opening game of the season. Top seeds Seattle and Glendale’s paths have seemed destined to collide in the grand finale since the opening weeks; however, this MLR season has proven to be anything but predictable.
So what should we expect from these equally tantalizing semi-final match-ups?
The Glendale Raptors have been the cream of the MLR – gliding through the competition with an unblemished record as they headed into the final round of the regular season.
However, that all came crumbling down this past weekend as they were manhandled and thoroughly dominated in every facet of the game by the San Diego Legion. The door for an upset has now creaked open ever so slightly.
If any team has the potential of being the underdog capable of a monumental upset, it is the Utah squad. The Warriors’ performances throughout the season have been riddled with inconsistency – twenty minutes of electric, free-flowing rugby is often followed by a spell of ill-discipline and unforced errors. Utah’s Jekyll and Hyde persona has made them a personal favourite of mine to watch. Each match, viewers are guaranteed an unpredictable and close encounter mixed with a handful of moments of dazzling skill.
The Warriors have individuals that are capable of breaking a game wide open at a moment’s notice. Their battering rams in the pack, Tevita Tameilau and Saia Uhila, are a handful that consistently provide front foot ball. Playmaker Kurt Morath will also return to the team after being recalled to the Tongan national team for the June international test window. However, the most welcome addition to Utah’s lineup this weekend will be their captain Paul Lasike. Lasike rejoins the squad after making himself a household name with three devastating performances for the USA Eagles, comprising the deadliest center partnership in the league with speedster Fetu’u Vainikolo.
While Utah are defined by their individual stars, the Glendale Raptors have prided themselves on strength in numbers. The Raptors' depth has carried them through the competition and they now welcome back six players from the Eagles camp, although John Quill suffered a knee injury during the USA’s historic win against Scotland. Nevertheless, the reintroduction of halfback partners of Shaun Davies and Will Magie brings instant stability back to the Raptors squad, and also allows Maximo De Achaval to slip back into his preferred role in the back three.
The familiarity of the Glendale team, the majority of whom have played together before as a club, has been their calling card to pull out victories in the deciding moments. Goal kicking magnifies in importance come playoff time, and each team possesses reliable players from the tee – whoever gets the scoreboard ticking over early and often will pile the pressure on once the tense final twenty minutes begins. Utah may have the ability to score from anywhere on the field, however Glendale’s consistent eighty minute performances and home field advantage put them in good stead.
On the other side of the Championship Series bracket, the second seeded Seattle Seawolves will take on a San Diego Legion team buzzing with confidence after their comprehensive dismissal of Glendale last weekend. During their only matchup in the opening round of the season, the Seawolves scrummed San Diego into submission in a game that felt as if boys were taking on men. However, the Legion’s surprisingly competent front-row performance against Glendale indicates that another story may unfold in the semi final.
While San Diego have begun to find their feet in the latter stages of the competition, Seattle’s three game road trip was less than convincing. Although the Seawolves secured two wins of their away games, their style of play was lethargic, no doubt due to the arduous travel across the country. Infinity Park is a closer destination, however, Seattle have looked a different team playing away from the rocking Starfire Stadium.
Each team’s individual finishes to the regular season cannot be discounted. Yet both will be heavily bolstered by players returning from international competition. Veterans Olive Kilifi and Ray Barkwill return to the dominant Seawolves scrum while the sure-footed Brock Staller will likely fill in on the wing.
San Diego’s returnees pose interesting questions for head coach Rob Hoadley. The only certainty is that eight man Cam Dolan will jump straight back onto the end of the scrum. Captain Nate Augsperger has been a regular face at scrum-half, however his 7’s acumen has led him to gradually spend more time on the wing. Dylan Audsley has also jumped between outside center and fullback, in his absence Ryan Matyas has been electric in the center position for the Legion. Rob Hoadley will be more than happy to have these sorts of questions to answer during the week.
Once again, Seattle’s depth may be the deciding factor in the encounter. The Seawolves have capable backups in every position (besides scrumhalf) and heavily utilize these fresh bodies to contribute to their ‘Sea-Wall’ defense that has stifled their opponent’s attacking play. If the conditions are clear then San Diego have a mobile pack and backline with enough quality to truly test the ‘Sea-Wall’ defense. If drizzle or wind set in, Seattle’s customary weather, then the Seawolves could feast at set-piece time.
It is an exciting moment for Major League Rugby that has been several months in the making. The parity of the competition has been a surprising, but welcome, addition. Viewers can expect the intensity to be cranked up a few notches with their first taste of knockout rugby, and by Saturday night we will discover who will vie for the inaugural Major League Rugby crown.