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The MLR preseason was in full swing this weekend as the San Diego Legion beat the Austin Elite in both teams’ first test, the Houston Sabercats and NOLA Gold tied in a rematch, and Rugby United New York blanked Mystic River, 50-0, in the first-ever professional rugby match in New York City. The Legion ventured to Texas and left with a 32-24 win against Austin while an improved NOLA hosted the Sabercats for their second meeting resulting in a 32-32 draw.
San Diego Legion at Austin Elite
Playing at Round Rock Multipurpose Complex in Round Rock, Texas, the Austin Elite welcomed the San Diego Legion to its first MLR preseason match on Sunday. Although the game ended in a 32-24 Legion victory, the match served as the initial building block to become ready for the league opener in late April.
“The game was very much a seesaw match,” Matt Hawkins, general manager of the Legion said. “The set piece, our continuity, and our ability to keep the ball played a role and ultimately, we went up because we had played some good rugby and being able to play in their half. In the second half, the first 15 minutes they controlled the ball were playing inside our 22. They capitalized and took advantage of the situation they found themselves in and scored.”
“From our side, the guys came out of the first half and into the second half on a high but a couple of silly mistakes found us with our backs against the wall and under a lot of pressure,” Hawkins added. “It was a really good thing for the coaches to see because the guys regrouped and reorganized and fought back to put in place a win.”
The Legion took the early lead going up 10-0 after a Tadhg Leader penalty and converted try by Pat Blair. Austin countered with a try from Mason Pederson and then got its first opportunity with a man advantage soon after. San Diego didn't step back and attacked scoring shorthanded as Cam Dolan made it 15-5 after 30 minutes of play. After killing off the rest of the card, the Legion added another Leader penalty late to lead 18-5 at the half.
Austin refocused at halftime to begin the second period on the front foot. “In the first half, we made a few mistakes and gave up some easy tries,” Austin captain Mason Pederson said. “In the second half, we knew our systems worked. We trusted our systems, came out and controlled the gain line and brought it to them in the first ten minutes.”
The Elite lived up to its name coming out of the break scoring twice in the first 15 minutes of the half. Pederson dotted down his second try followed by Deon Minnaar to take the lead at 19-18. The advantage didn’t last as San Diego responded with an Anthony Salaber try in the 59th minute and another by Blair in the 62nd. Austin’s Pat Sullivan found the endzone late, but San Diego earned its first-ever victory, 32-24.
Pederson was encouraged by the match, even though the score was not in Austin’s favor. “All around, we have a pretty balanced team between the forwards and backs. We have a strong pack in the scrum, our backs are pretty athletic with bruisers at 12 and 13. Overall, we just have to be physical this year, get around the park, and wear teams down.”
“Our biggest takeaway for us is that we can build on it,” Pederson stated. “We played well but we can play better. There were mistakes but overall we didn’t play horrible. There is something to build on to get better.”
The Austin Elite’s next preseason match is Saturday at home versus NOLA Gold. “It’s going to be a hard physical match,” Pederson said. “This is preseason so mistakes are going to happen but it's just who reacts better to them... The scoreboard isn’t always going to indicate what happens in preseason, but for us, we just want to build to that first game against Glendale.”
As for San Diego, the Legion welcomes the Houston Sabercats to California on April 7th for its first home game. “We are excited to have our fans and our home base energized and activated around the team,” Hawkins concluded. “For the team, we learned a lot on Sunday. The coaches will have the opportunity to analyze the film and give feedback to the players. We will learn from this game and move on towards the next challenge, which is Houston two weeks from now.”
Houston Sabercats at NOLA Gold
In the first meeting between the Houston Sabercats and NOLA Gold a month ago in Texas, the Sabercats were the aggressors winning 30-12. With time to mature and improve, NOLA Gold defended its home field to a 32-32 draw at Archbishop Shaw Field. Both squads didn’t play to their potential in a match full of penalties and missed opportunities.
“We didn’t perform consistently for long enough to really do ourselves justice,” Houston head coach Justin Fitzpatrick said. “I think we had a good period of about 20 minutes over the course of the game and did enough to win the game but we didn’t perform to the level we expect of ourselves... There were several opportunities for scores that could have been but were left wanton. We have to take that on the chin.”
Pago Haini, Malacchi Esdale, Conor Mills (2), and Josua Vici scored tries for the Sabercats but the Houston kickers struggled throughout the game. Zach Pangelian was one of four on conversions and one for two on penalties and Sam Windsor missed two penalties late that could have been game-winners.
For NOLA, JP Eloff, Holden Yungert, Tim Maupin, and Sebastian Kalm crossed the whitewash for the Gold with Taylor Howden connecting on three conversions and two penalties.
Houston is on the road once again in two weeks to San Diego. Adjusting to playing away from Texas is paramount to Fitzpatrick. “We have had weeks of playing at home and got very comfortable in that surroundings. Now we have to get comfortable preparing and delivering on the road. That will be our complete focus.”
Mystic River at Rugby United New York
After an opening win against the Ontario Arrows, Rugby United New York played the first professional rugby match in New York City on Saturday evening at Gaelic Park in the Bronx against Mystic River. In front of a sold-out crowd of over 3,500 fans, RUNY shut out the Massachusetts club, 50-0.
“Though we had limited time to prepare this week, we came out strong in the first couple of minutes and most importantly composed,” RUNY outside center Chris Vakasisikakala said. “We stuck to our pattern of play keeping the ball tight and when we were comfortable we opened up and attacked wide.”
On the significance of playing the first game in NYC, Vakasisikakala stated, “It means a lot for us players in RUNY to play our first professional game and gives us a chance to represent our city and most importantly, gives our local players and friends and families something to support and look forward to.”
Mystic head coach Josh Smith was impressed with the RUNY side. “They are legit. It is a veteran side 1 to 23. The biggest issues we had were that they absolutely destroyed us in the set piece... They have some experienced and big guys and really punished us off any mistakes or penalties. They probably had 75% possession.”
The teams play again on Saturday in Boston to complete the home and home series.