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Written By: Adam McQueen
Infinity Park played host for the highly anticipated double-header to open the Major League Rugby Championship Series this past weekend.
Top seeds Glendale Raptors and Seattle Seawolves each earned a berth in the inaugural final to be played in San Diego next weekend. Yet their semi final victories were in stark contrast to one another.
The Seawolves battled in a scrappy encounter with the surging San Diego Legion, recovering from multiple deficits until they eventually secured the 38-24 win in the closing quarter of action.
Meanwhile, the Raptors – in front of a packed home crowd – raced to an early 22 point lead in comprehensive fashion, only to withstand a late charge from the visiting Utah Warriors. They managed to cling on to a deserved 34-21 victory.
The two front runners, possessing a combined 17-3 record on the year, will now clash in a monumental encounter to determine who will take home inaugural MLR silverware.
Seattle, playing in the earlier of the two games, quickly fell victim to poor handling in the blustery conditions and were forced to rely on their stout defensive structure to withstand the potent Legion attack. Despite allowing fullback Joe Pietersen to slice them apart for an early counter-attack try off of an errant box kick, the Seawolves’ defense was resolute in a first half in which they barely touched the ball.
In order to win in the playoff atmosphere, teams must be clinical with their opportunities, and Phil Mack’s men were just that. Shalom Suniula spun through the scrambling defensive line after returning eight-man Riekert Hattingh rampaged into San Diego territory for the first time, bringing the teams level at 10-10 entering half time.
In the second half, the Seawolves pack began to impose their will on the game.
Their dominance at the set-piece was eerily similar to the two teams' matchup in the opening round of the competition – it was clear that San Diego were tiring.
The emphatic Seattle scrum on display will be their calling card against Glendale, who struggled mightily against the Utah forwards.
Referee Derek Summers then sent two Legion players to the sin bin in quick succession, which was soon followed by a 60 meter intercept try by winger Peter Tiberio that gifted Seattle their first lead. With a distinct numerical advantage, Seattle were able to cruise to the finish line.
In contrast, Glendale managed to put three tries on the board before fans could even make their way to their seats. Swift handling – starting with Eagles flanker John Quill's absurd offload – resulted in Sam Figg diving over for a score before the clock even reached two minutes.
A darting inside line by Maximo De Archaval shredded the Utah defense to tatters as the tournament favourites imposed their will on the match. However, as the Warriors are known to do, the handful of Utah game-breakers made individual plays that brought them back into the contest. Bursting runs from Fetu’u Vainikolo and leading try scorer Tonata Lauti, as well as crunching hits from Tevita Tameilau, were not enough as the Warriors comeback fell short.
Although there were plenty of replacements on the field, the Raptors will have to be wary of their lackadaisical approach to the final twenty minutes of the game.
Seattle have thrived at the sixty minute mark and will certainly utilize their strong bench to inject energy into the second half. Nevertheless, the six Eagles that returned to the Raptors did not skip a beat and were instrumental in dominating early proceedings.
It's hard to look past the calming presence of their halfback duo of Shaun Davies and Will Magie when trying to decipher who will emerge victorious this weekend. Davies has rightfully nailed down the starting scrum half position for the USA, while Magie finished the season fourth in scoring despite his absence throughout June.
So how will the teams match up next week?
Based on their previous matchups, it is not outrageous to conclude that Seattle will feast as usual in the scrum. Despite this, Glendale’s mettle in open play and defensive tenacity has been the foundation for their victories.
The Seawolves have struggled on both occasions when facing a defense that is as staunch as theirs. The Raptors will not allow easy scores, and they force teams to methodically break them down for an eternity of phases. Back in April, during damp conditions ideal for Seattle, Glendale still managed to clinch a 19-15 victory. Later in round nine, the Raptors trampled the Seawolves on home soil 33-11 –although each team were without their international representatives.
If history repeats itself, then we will be celebrating a Glendale Raptors victory by Saturday night’s end. They have been the most complete, well-rounded team in the competition, and the pressure of the moment will not phase their seasoned veterans.
However, from an individual talent standpoint, the Seawolves are not outmatched in any department. Seattle possess two vital ingredients for playoff success: set-piece dominance and an imposing defense.
These two elements alone will not ensure a victory - the Seawolves must reduce their errors and bring composure to their attack if they hope to upset the league leaders.
My brain says Glendale will prevail but my gut senses a Seattle upset. Saturday night will determine which instinct is correct.