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Six Major League Rugby matches are in the books through two weeks of action. Amidst the story lines are the fact that Glendale is an expected 2-0, Austin and expected 0-2, and everyone else falls somewhere in between. There’s the story of Seattle showing well through two games, despite being player-coached. Attendance will be a major talking point all season.
But the players are the real stars, and we’re starting to figure out who is who. After two weeks, we can start making some assertions. Instead of giving you a simple list of players who’ve stood out, I’m going to break the conversation into three categories – the football guys, young guns and late comers.
Paul Lasike we knew about. He’s the former Chicago Bears linebacker who came to football by way of Highland and BYU rugby. He’s an Eagle. He’s really good, but so far Utah’s scrumhalf situation has really kept him from getting going.
With some space to work with and time to build a little speed, Lasike is as tough a tackle as there is to make in the league. We saw glimpses of what he’s capable of with the Eagles in the Americas Rugby Championship. But Utah is without a top-shelf scrumhalf. The brothers Nicholls are about as good a local pair a fledgling franchise could have hoped to just have on hand this first season, but the Warriors are without someone capable of class service, and it shows.
Saturday, we found out former Patriots fullback Joey Iosefa was in the league when he subbed in for the Houston Sabercats and ran through a diving Todd Clever tackle attempt and over flyhalf Timothee Guillimin for a try on his first touch. Like Lasike, he’s a massive former NFL fullback. Unlike Lasike, he didn’t grow up playing the game in New Zealand, so expectations should be tempered. Finally, though, someone can fill out a Houston jersey as well as Alex Elkins.
Malacchi Esdale is fast. He hasn’t touched the ball enough for the Sabercats, but when he does, he’s capable of special things. Esdale played junior college football and reportedly for the University of Miami and Central Florida, though that’s unconfirmed. What is confirmed is this guy is fast.
Aaron Mitchell is the big, ginger prop for the San Diego Legion who sticks out like a chorus of Southern Californians dressed in Roman garb at a rugby match. The Legion forwards came under fire for their week-one performance against Glendale, and Mitchell was benched for week two, but he’s a powerful, athletic unit. Mitchell played high school rugby before going to Fresno State to play guard.
Guys like Mitchell Major League Rugby can help with right away – give plus-level athletes with some baseline understanding or affinity for rugby a place to develop and grow as professionals. It will be fun watching him figure his game out, and when he does, it will be fun watching him crush skulls in an Eagle uniform.
Lance Williams is the long-haired flanker for the Utah Warriors who comes to rugby after playing linebacker at the University of Hawaii with Iosefa. He has all the athletic tools but is new to the sport, and the trick for him will be figuring out and having confidence in what he’s supposed to be doing when. If he can start reacting instead of having to think it through, he’ll be able to impose his athleticism and physicality in a way few in the league can.
Esdale and Mitchell could probably fit in this category, too. Esdale has already been in camps with the 7s team, and Mitchell is an age-grade veteran. But this short list is reserved for uncapped guys who have looked really good so far and don’t fit into another subset.
Mika Kruse is 19-years-old. He’s fresh out of high school, has played for 10 years and is logging significant minutes in the midfield for the league leader. When people talk about what MLR could mean for American rugby, when they talk about inverting the pyramid, prioritizing youth, or trying to capture the growing number of very talented high school rugby players not bound for the traditional four-year college experience, they’re really talking about Kruse.
He has been phenomenal with ball-in-hand, showing real flashes of Maka Unufe-like ability. He has some work to do defensively, but marking three Eagles everyday (Bryce Campbell, Chad London and Seth Halliman) will accelerate Kruse’s development. He came out of high school a flyhalf, the Glendale U20-turned-U23 academy snatched him up, and he’s got my juices flowing.
Did I mention he’s young, like Thetton Palamo-in-the-2007-World-Cup-young? Imagine if instead of going to college, taking a three-year break for football and bouncing from half-opportunity to short-term contract, Palamo played professional rugby consistently for a decade while always being available for the USA. That’s the possibility for Kruse.
Harley Davidson is the opposite of a diamond in the rough. Perhaps no single player was more instrumental in Life’s squad over the last few years, earning All-American honors. Davidson came to Life a scrumhalf, played a significant amount of flanker, and is now on the wing in the MLR. He is faster than he looks and takes contact much above his weight with an insatiable motor.
He’s just not very big, a detail not slowing him down at this level so far. But size is no more an issue than it was for Tim Stanfill, Cornelius Dirksen, or Tim Maupin before him. Davidson will always have to contend with his measurables, but I like his chances to earn a cap.
Devin Short. I include him because some people seem to not know much about him, although he was the subject of the Olympic Channel’s reality series on finding Olympic hopefuls for several sports and has been training full-time at the Elite Athlete Training Center with the 7s Eagles since. He’s very young with athletic upside – could be playing D2 college football right now instead of rugby. Short’s already in the pipeline, so worth keeping an eye on.
Justin Allen. The 6’9” Irishman stands above any crowd. He’s a 22-year-old former High School All-American who is growing into his massive frame, and judging by his ability to hoof it in support of a cross kick and be rewarded with a try Saturday against the Austin Elite, I’d say this Sabercat isn’t going to have to wait long for a call from Gary Gold. Quality height is tough to come by for any nation. For America, finding someone that big, that experienced and that young is almost unheard of.
Like with PRO, some really significant players have been added, and apparently are going to continue to be added, really late. If I have a chief frustration about MLR so far, it’s how it’s handled signings and announcements in-season. Early on, it was understandably the wild west. You had seven brand new teams who all had to sign teams from scratch. That’s more than 200 individual signings to announce – too many for any league to do in a systematic, organized, easy-to-consume manner.
However, this late in the game, fans and media shouldn’t be finding out an NFL fullback is on a team by seeing him sub on. We shouldn’t be going weeks and weeks without any official word regarding Seattle’s coaching situation. We shouldn’t be finding out last second that, oh by the way, the most-capped player in USA history who is a team owner and a decorated Springbok who is an assistant coach are going to be booting up. I digress.
Utah was in obvious need of class halfbacks. It filled one of those two spots with the late signing of Tongan international Kurt Morath, but his first-ever game with the Warriors was Utah’s week-two loss. Surely, they’d have been better off with him in camp sooner. Same with David Tameilau, who made his debut for Utah in the second half Sunday. Good additions, but Utah’s win/loss record might have ended up better if they were brought in sooner.
In Austin, the late additions were all notable, but they’re all aging. 31-year-old Roland Suniula, 35-year-old Todd Clever, 36-year-old Andrew Suniula and 37-year-old Pedrie Wannenburg all came into the playing picture relatively late for the Elite. Unfortunately, their presence hasn’t spelled victory yet, and it might not. Austin has proven to be severely undermanned across the board so far, despite the outstanding play of flyhalf Timothee Guillimin and openside flanker Hanco Germishuys.
It appears San Diego is about to be bolstered by the addition of Tony Lamborn, the form American openside at the moment. The Legion pack could use the shot in the arm, though tight five seems a more pressing position group.
Seattle’s late personnel addition of note was flyhalf Will Holder. The former Army All-American is now living the life of an officer, so it’s awesome he even has the ability to participate. His kicking has been inconsistent so far this season, but he’s a steady hand for Seattle and adds a different skill set than the Seawolves’ other potential flyhalves.