You are here
None of the original seven teams turned their roster over more than the NOLA Gold in the offseason. Only 11 of the match-day-23 announced for their season opener against Toronto Saturday were involved in last year’s debut. For good reason, as the Gold finished 3-5 and in second-to-last place in 2018.
Injuries to vital players piled up on the Gold at the front end of last season, rendering them without a legitimate kicker and running on fumes. The writing on the wall told them they needed to get better, and general manager Ryan Fitzgerald didn’t wait until after the last game to start the offseason work.
“He did a great job understanding right at the end of the season what we needed to do and getting right on top of it and not dillydallying and waiting,” head coach Nate Osborne said.
Preparation pays, as the Gold got their last player, Samoan lock Kane Thompson, into camp a couple of days after Christmas. The rest of the team had been assembled since late November. Other teams will start their seasons still waiting for visas to be approved and players to arrive.
“That, in itself, has been a huge thing for us,” Osborne said.
First on Fitzgerald’s to-do list was finding some tall timber. NOLA’s lineout was indicative of its spot in the final standings last season, as the Gold struggled to field prototypical second rows. Brought in were the 33-cap Thompson, who’s played in both the English Premiership and Super Rugby, 35-cap Uruguayan Ignacio Dotti and 20-cap Canadian Kyle Baillie, who can swing between second and back rows.
They join Chilean international Nikola Bursic to form a quartet of capable international locks. Saturday, they’ll be without two, as Bursic is resting a broken finger suffered in the preseason, and Dotti is with Los Teros for the start of the Americas Rugby Championship. He’ll return in a couple of weeks, in time to cover for Baillie, who’s been drafted into Canada’s ARC side.
The Gold were also stunted by a season-ending injury to dynamic flyhalf JP Eloff early last season. They had no one to create or kick for goal in his absence, so Fitzgerald fortified the midfield, too, pulling in a trio of pros from the southern hemisphere. Former Queensland Red Scott Gale lines up at flyhalf, Australian 7s stud Con Foley will start at inside center, and Shark Tristan Blewett at outside center. That allows Eloff to attack from fullback.
“I think last year, we had a way we wanted to play, and I think after those injuries, we probably couldn’t get to that level we all really wanted to get to,” said Osborne.
“I think this year, I feel really confident in the guys we’ve brought in and also the depth we’ve got to be able to play really the way we want to play. Toronto, I don’t think they would have seen the type of game we want to play with the pace we want to try to play with.”
Central to playing an expansive, fast game will be Gale. He played a mixture of scrumhalf, flyhalf and fullback for the Reds, but it didn’t take Osborne long to identify his best position for NOLA.
“He’s fit in seamlessly here, and I think his 10 play is better than his 9 play. I think he gets the ball in his hands with a bit more space. He’s got a great kicking game, great vision, and he’s quick enough to make those breaks as well,” said Osborne.
“We didn’t know exactly where we were going to play him when he first got here, but after we saw him a few times at training and I had a chat to him, he was going to be our starting 10.”
Some domestic additions will likely prove just as impactful. None more than No. 8 Cam Dolan, whose been the in-form man at the back of the scrum for the USA. Tim Maupin was on the team last year, but he spent much of the season nursing a broken leg. He’s just now getting back to form, as evidenced by inclusion for the ARC. Lindenwood standout Nick Feakes can provide some punch off the bench, along with fellow All-Americans Malcolm May (Penn State) and Kevin Sullivan (Cal).
Perhaps the best sign for new-look New Orleans, though, is where trusted veterans find themselves on the depth chart. John Sullivan started every game last season, usually in the second row. Taylor Howden was asked to basically carry the team in Eloff’s absence. Vincent Jobo was expected to play a big role last year, before blowing his Achilles. They’re all coming off the bench Saturday, thanks to a deepened stable.
“A lot of guys who started every game last year will be coming off the bench and filling that depth role,” said Osborne. “So I think we’re in a lot better spot.”
If the MLR awarded a trophy for winning the offseason, NOLA would hoist it. They start 2019 with 126 additional international caps and seven more veteran professionals than in 2018. We'll find out if the winning follows the Gold onto the pitch Saturday.