Seawolves Prove victorious in first ever MLR FInal
Written By: Adam McQueen
The Seattle Seawolves saved the best for last as they stunned the Glendale Raptors 23-19 to secure the inaugural Major League Rugby title on Saturday evening in Torero Stadium.
After falling short against the Raptors on two prior occasions during the regular season, Seattle survived a gripping affair in which the momentum swung back and forth for eighty minutes.
The ‘Seawall defense’ set the tone immediately, halting Glendale behind the gainline before destroying an early breakdown to earn a turnover. With the resulting possession, Seattle got the first points of the day through a penalty kick from fly-half Peter Smith. However, as they have done all season, the Raptors quickly bounced back. In a matter of minutes Glendale were firmly camped in Seattle territory and repeatedly turned to their driving maul to regain the lead 7-3.
Smith – who prior to the match was widely considered the most reliable goal kicker in the league without a miss to his name – left his kicking boots at home on this occasion, as he pulled an achievable attempt left of the posts. As a result, the Seawolves turned down several shots at goal in favour of establishing their own driving maul.
Captain Phil Mack’s confidence in his pack paid dividends when hooker Ray Barkwill peeled from the back of the maul to tunnel over the line for an 8-7 lead.
After a cagey opening quarter, the game began to open up in the San Diego heat.
A scintillating series of Seattle offloads brought them from their own 22 metre line to Glendale territory. Following a hasty Raptors' clearance kick, Seattle appeared to score one of the tries of the season from the set-piece. English flyer Mat Turner finished off a devastating line-break by Sequoyah Burke-Combs; however, the TMO deemed an obstruction had occurred.
Glendale used the TMO stoppage to regain their composure and get control of proceedings. Another Raptors' driving maul sucked in Seattle defenders like moths to a flame, allowing winger Harley Davidson to scamper through the blind side. The Raptors top try scorer had provided game-breaking plays all season for Glendale, yet in this moment his inopportune knock-on diving over the try-line sapped the energy from the league leaders. The tension was palpable as the half-time whistle blew, with each team regretting their mistakes, preventing either from taking a commanding lead in the match.
Glendale landed the first blow in the second half, again resorting to their unstoppable driving maul that bundled over for a Zach Fenoglio try.
An utterly bizarre series of decisions then followed which changed the complexion of the second half. Scrumhalf Shaun Davies chipped a ball into space off a turnover, which was quickly followed up by Maximo De Achaval. However, the Argentine whiffed entirely on his fly-hack attempt. Seattle flanker Vili Toluta’u was there to seemingly recover possession, yet he also flubbed on an audacious fly-hack of his own. The Raptors' back-line gladly swept up the loose ball and jogged in under the posts. Glendale were on the precipice of victory leading 19-8.
Facing an eleven point deficit, Seattle displayed their mettle once more in outstanding fashion.
The Seawolves resorted to their oft-used driving maul as a decoy and instead Mack found a rampaging Toluta’u, who dragged several defenders with him toward the goal line. The ball was recycled quickly and William Rasileka easily finished in the corner off of the overlap.
Within a few phases after the ensuing kickoff, Mack found winger Peter Tiberio down the blindside channel, who fed a perfectly timed inside ball to Riekert Hattingh after drawing the scattered Glendale defense. Hattingh then displayed eye-popping pace to finish the score from forty metres out.
Within a blink of an eye Seattle had suddenly reclaimed a 20-19 advantage.
After stemming the Glendale tide of momentum and delivering a counter-punch of their own, Seattle finally had their feet beneath them.
Raptors head coach David Williams acknowledged his team’s inability to rebound from the sudden flurry of Seattle points.
“They won the physicality on attack and spread well on defense, shutting down our options,” Williams noted after the match. “We gave away too many penalties and didn’t convert when we needed to.”
The ‘Seawall defense’ gained a second wind after a hectic twenty minutes to calm the contest down.
Disciplined tackling led to another Peter Smith penalty kick which extended the score to 23-19. Glendale – who have prided themselves on their consistency throughout adversity the entire season – struggled to find a response similar to their early second half barrage, as numerous attacking attempts were strewn with errors. Seattle’s substitutes gladly absorbed the pressure and ground the clock down to secure an incredible victory.
The jubilation beaming from coach, captain, and All-MLR performer Phil Mack after the match was hard to ignore.
“This group has been through so much this year that when our backs have been against the wall, the cohesiveness of the team really showed in the comeback,” Mack explained. “Bringing back the title to Seattle just reinforces the fact that professional rugby belongs in the Pacific Northwest.”
Mack’s comments after the match extend beyond the Pacific Northwest – Major League Rugby emphasized beyond a shadow of a doubt that professional rugby belongs in the United States.