My voice has returned after Sunday’s nailbiter match between the Major League Rugby champion Seattle Seawolves, and the Glendale (Colorado) Raptors in a repeat of the 2018 MLR championship.
Winning in the final minutes by a mere two points, the Seawolves put the other eight teams of the MLR on notice that the Championship win against the Raptors was not a fluke, and the Seawolves are the team to beat this season.
Sticking With A Successful Formula
The Seawolves starting lineup would be familiar to anyone who saw the Championship in San Diego, July 7, 2018. Only four changes were made to the first fifteen: the retired Ray Barkwill was replaced at #2 by Stephan Coetzee, the new Fijian Apisai Naikitani came in at #5 for Cam Polson, and Brad Tucker replaced Eric Duchele at #6. In the backs, #10 Peter Smith’s departure was filled by the new USA Eagles-capped player, Ben Cima, who played for the San Diego Legion last season.
From the start, the game on Sunday was very evenly matched. Both teams hammered on each other in the forwards, the backs tried to poke holes in defensive lines, and kicks were fielded and returned capably, without drama.
The Raptors drew first blood with a 3-point penalty kick, which was quickly matched by the Seawolves. The teams continued a tightly contested game as almost exact equals on field, with the Seawolves hanging on to a small lead at the halftime break, 10-7.
The Power of the SEAWALL
The Raptors came into the second half explosively, capitalizing on two Seawolves’ mistakes and scoring two tries in as few minutes, taking the lead, 10-18.
Fresh legs were brought in for the Seawolves, including JP Smith replacing Phil Mack at scrum half, and Seawolves veterans Eric Duchele, Mike Shepherd, Kellen Gordon, George Barton and Jeremy Lenaerts being joined by the Seawolves’ newest signing, Moses Lalasava. The now-famous Seattle defense – the Seawall – was in full power and fitness, matching – then decisively overpowering – the Raptors scrum.
The nail-biting second half was where the Seawolves greater fitness and composure became evident. Like the Championship game last season, the Raptors looked tired in the second half, and made some crucial mistakes which the Seawolves were quick to capitalize on.
Winger Brock Staller, the Seawolves primary kicker, found himself running with the ball up the sideline and his path cut off by three Raptors including the formidable Zack Fengolio. Seeing a gap, Staller lightly kicked the ball ahead, sprinted between the defensive players and left Fengolio flat-footed. Scooping up his own ball on the run, Staller leaped into the end zone scoring a try to bring the Seawolves within 1 point of the Raptors.
A penalty on the Raptors in the waning moments of the game left the Seawolves just inside the Raptors half of the field with the choice of whether to take a scrum, kick the ball to gain better field position, or attempt a long kick for 3 points to give the Seawolves a 2-point lead.
Opting to kick for points, Staller lined up for a long and slightly awkward kick from almost midfield. The same kick he had missed early in the first half.
The normally raucous and chanting Seawolves fans fell absolutely silent as Staller – unhurried, with deep focus and concentration – booted the ball high into the air.
The kick sailed true and put the Seawolves up 20-18, with three minutes left in the game.
The explosion of noise from the 4000+ fans packed SRO into Starfire Stadium was deafening, but the game was not over. Careful defensive play by the Seawolves maintained possession of the ball and ran the final minutes off the clock. One last scrum for the Seawolves saw JP Smith get the ball out quickly to Shalom Suniula, who kicked the ball out of play into the stands, ending the game.
A Championship Replay
In retrospect, the Seawolves’ starting lineup was not the only similarity to last year’s Championship game when the Seawolves beat the Raptors to win the MLR Shield. The general cadence of the game felt similar, as well.
At first the teams were well-matched, fighting a fairly equal battle. Mistakes by the Seawolves turned the tide of the game and the Raptors took a significant lead. Late in the game the Seawolves maintained consistent play and energy, while the Raptors tired and racked up penalty after penalty. Eventually, the Seawolves eke out a lead late in the game, and maintain possession of the ball in careful defensive play to run time out on the clock.
From a league standpoint, this puts the Raptors and Seawolves each with two losses and two wins against the other over two seasons. However, the Raptors won the first two meetings early last season, while the Seawolves have won the last two contests against the Raptors. Two and two, the upcoming rematch in Glendale on May 18th will surely set the stage for June’s playoffs between these two powerhouse teams.
Across the league four games were played this weekend, two featuring the new teams added this year; Rugby United New York (RUNY) and the Toronto Arrows. All of the contests were close and there were only a total of 10 points difference across all four games… an unusually tight grouping for rugby.
This is an auspicious beginning to the second season of Major League Rugby. It is clear that the teams have matured significantly since last season, and there is buzz about the MLR not only in North America, but also amongst fans across the world.
The Seawolves season continues this weekend, with an away game at the San Diego Legion. Seawolves fans are breaking new ground here, as well, traveling as a group to the game as part of the Rugby 100 Club’s first outing of the season. Limited to 100 fans per game, the Rugby 100 Club organizes package tours for fans to Seawolves away games, to bring the energy and excitement of Starfire Stadium on the road with the Seawolves.
Tickets are still available to Seawolves home games, and for the away games via the Rugby 100 Club. Follow the links below to learn now.