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Player signings continue to clog the offseason Major League Rugby marquee, and for good reason, but the biggest news since our last update might be on the sideline, as Seattle has announced a new coach in Anton Moolman.
The Seawolves famously won the inaugural title on the shoulders of player/coach Phil Mack after previously announced head man Tony Healy was unable to secure a visa, resulting in a lawsuit. The Seattle coaching carousel has settled on Moolman, former director of rugby for the Western Province in South Africa.
His resume is solid, but perhaps the most intriguing angle of the hire is that he’s the first South African head coach in MLR. San Diego’s Rob Hoadley is English, as is Glendale’s Dave Williams. NOLA’s Nate Osborne is Australian. Utah’s Alf Daniels is from New Zealand. Austin’s Alain Hyardet is French. Houston’s Justin Fitzpatrick is Irish. New York’s Mike Tolkin is American.
Combine the political and financial climate in South African rugby with the MLR doubling its foreigner limit to 10, and the league is likely to become increasingly South African from a player perspective. Like Fitzpatrick used his overseas contacts to land some European pros in Houston and New York’s Irish-owned, English-led front office appears to be doing, Moolman will be well positioned to identify, recruit and sign talent from his homeland.
Seattle also recently re-signed flanker Eric Duechle. The former Air Force All-American made his return to rugby's big stage last season after failing to gain traction in the men's 7s setup. He did so as successfully as possible, playing a big role in Seattle's title run.
If not Moolman, the biggest news is leaguewide, as the MLR has reportedly made agreements with both the Uruguay Rugby Union and the pro leagues in France to bolster its ranks with quality. The Uruguay deal is supposed to see 15 or so Los Teros gain valuable playing time in the MLR, and the French deal is supposed to pull up to 30 French pros stateside on loan over the next two years.
The aforementioned expansion of the foreigner limit and these two partnerships signal the league is eager to improve its standard of play.
In other non-signing news, the Ontario Arrows have lined up an Oct. 20 exhibition match against the newly minted New England FreeJacks. While the FreeJacks are likely to look a lot like the Mystic River side that’s been scrimmaging MLR clubs, this will be the first official meeting between two future East Coast rivals.
Glendale logged its third exhibition match of the fall, producing its first win, 81-7 over the Denver Barbarians Saturday at Infinity Park. The Raptors fielded several year-one regulars in the lineup, blitzing the defending D2 national champions. This used to be a heated rivalry between two very good DI clubs, but with the advent of the MLR, Denver’s best play their 15s for Glendale and 7s for the Barbos, taking the vitriol out of the derby.
Glendale had lost previous exhibitions against the Ontario Arrows in Canada and the College All-Americans prior to downing the Barbarians. Their next two will be more telling, as they face the Utah Warriors in back-to-back matches over the next two weeks.
On the signing front, Houston re-signed two more players in Malacchi Esdale and Chris Coyle. Esdale emerged as one of the best finds of the inaugural season, displaying an elite combination of pace and agility. Coyle came on late last season, working his way into the rotation at flanker. With departed captain Kyle Sumsion leaving a void in the back row, Coyle could be considerably more involved this go-around.
RUNY inked two more expected players in Connor Wallace-Sims and Luke Hume. Both are Old Blue standouts who booted up for New York during spring exhibitions. Hume, 30, is both a 15s and 7s Eagle, and Sims, 23, has toured with the 7s team. Either would have started on any club last year, but with the overseas firepower RUNY has already inked, Tolkin is likely going to be forced to make some tough selections.
The team that’s arguably improved the most this offseason is New Orleans. The Gold finished second-to-last in 2018, but they were lucky to not do even worse, considering the chunk taken out of them by the injury bug. JP Eloff is back on the pitch, playing for the USA’s second side in the Americas Pacific Challenge. Vincent Jobo’s rehab appears to be going well.
Adding some new players to the mix as well, NOLA has signed two from the Southern Hemisphere in former Queensland scrumhalf Scott Gale and former Sharks center Tristan Blewett. Gale has Super Rugby experience, though he hasn’t played for the Reds on that stage in a couple of years. Blewett is a hard-charging center whose highest level of play is the Currie Cup.
2019 Offseason Signings
Simon Courcoul (Prop/France)
Andres Vilaseca (Center/Uruguay)
Cecil Garber (Re-signed)
Malacchi Esdale (Re-signed)
Chris Coyle (Re-signed)
Scott Gale (Australia)
Tristan Blewett (South Africa)
Ben Foden (England)
Cathal Marsh (Ireland)
Phil Mack (extended)
Eric Duechle (re-signed)