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In a pivotal match to stay in the Major League Rugby playoff picture, the San Diego Legion turned in a dominant performance in New Orleans, La. against the NOLA Gold. Playing an open, up-tempo strategy that kept the ball in NOLA’s territory for most of the game, San Diego’s mix of driving mauls and capitalizing on the counterattack resulted in a 39-22 road victory and the third win of the season.
The victory puts San Diego in fourth place behind next week’s opponent. A win against the Austin Elite could secure a playoff spot for the Legion with its final match on June 23rd against Glendale.
“We really just placed the focus on being direct and doing the basics well, but with intensity,” Legion captain Tadhg Leader said. “Before the game, we knew it was going to be hot and sweaty so we didn’t want to play too much rugby in our end. We definitely looked to utilize kicking to the corners, playing in their end, and apply pressure.”
“The lineout drive was a potent weapon and so were our open field runners,” head coach Rob Hoadley stated. “We wanted to create situations where we could cause turnovers and counterattacks. You can do that by squeezing and strangling the opposition in the right areas of the field. The lineout drive looked very dangerous, but we scored four great tries from our backs seeing the space.”
With key cogs off with the Eagles or injured, many new faces made their debuts for the Legion this week. “We knew that losing a lot of boys to the Eagles would mean a lot of change,” Leader stated. “The senior guys took it upon ourselves to try and lead the group and integrate. We had seven new players so we had no time to waste and we got them embedded in our culture straight away. It was a major effort off the field to get them comfortable and we were thrilled with the impact they made.”
The play didn’t start well for San Diego as NOLA’s Holden Yungert dodged through the line for a long run before offloading to Tim Maupin for the game’s opening try just six minutes into the contest. The Legion didn’t waste time to respond as Pat Blair dotted the ball down on a driving maul three minutes later and Leader added a penalty in the 20th minute for the 8-7 lead.
With the momentum, San Diego scored off a kick counterattack as Conor Kearns offloaded to Ryan Matyas down the sideline. The Legion had multiple opportunities to add points to the scoreboard but were done in by unforced errors.
After a NOLA penalty closed the gap to 15-10, San Diego threatened once again to score but was stopped with a held ball in the endzone. On the ensuing five-meter scrum, the ball was swung out to Anthony Salaber who charged through two defenders for the try and the 22-10 halftime advantage.
The end of half energy flowed in the second as San Diego scored a minute into the period. After a charging down a kick, the counterattack on the weak side saw little resistance as Nick Evans brutalized the would-be tackler for a try.
NOLA regained its focus soon after and following a penalty, set itself up with good field position inside the 22. Four passes after the lineout, Taylor Howden found Cameron Troxler for a dive into the endzone for five points. The conversion narrowed the lead to ten with 30 minutes left.
The back and forth continued with the San Diego defense stepping up big in the 53rd minute. After a vicious counter-ruck, Leader sent a grubber to the wing where Taku Nqwenya scooped it up for the try.
Leader described the play saying, “NOLA brought a lot of line speed so I got a call on the outside from Taku that they had a shooter which means someone was on the line looking to pick off an intercept and there was going to be space behind. I could do that 10-20 more times and it couldn’t have come off as good as it did today. I got good communication from the outside and trusted the ball to my foot. I was pretty thrilled when that one came off.”
NOLA came right back with a JP Eloff try off a quick tap and the Legion answered with a Nathan Sylvia score from a driving maul. Unfortunately for NOLA, any final comeback was put to rest when it was yellowed carded with seven minutes left. The San Diego defense did its job the rest of the way and Leader kicked the ball into touch for the 39-22 win.
Hoadley attributed the win to a simplified brand of rugby that attacked NOLA. “We went back to basics, it was a group effort, and it was everyone in it together. I think the boys took the challenge with a two-week preparation. After Austin, we knew we had to get back to basics, work hard as a group, and the guys took pleasure in doing that.”
As for NOLA, the defeat saw its playoff chances take a deathblow. “San Diego just played smart, they kept us in our side of the field, and made us put pressure on ourselves,” flyhalf JP Eloff said. “We struggled to exit out of our own half and did not protect the ball in the rucks which cost us a lot. It was a tough match but San Diego kept and protected the ball and that’s what gave them the win.”
Vice-captain Nikola Bursic commented, “Anytime you have a team that's against the wall which was the case for both teams, you’re going to bring your best. They had a tough job overcoming the weather and so did we, but they did well at keeping up the pressure and physicality.
“Their kicking game really put pressure on our side and we were unable to execute our kicking which kept the pressure on our side,” Bursic said. “At key moments of the game, we were not accurate enough to carry out our system to our full potential.”
NOLA’s last match of season is next week against Utah. “I truly expect and want for the team to end the season on a high note, especially for ourselves,” Bursic concluded. “Ultimately, we have a great group of players with a lot of passion and talent that we haven't been able to exploit and show off. The season doesn't finish until you play your last game and that's exactly what we will do, prepare for our last fight in this season one of the MLR.”
With NOLA hoping to end its first season on a high note, San Diego wants the train to run through to the playoffs. The next stop is next week against Austin at home at Torero Stadium.
“We have to win next week,” Hoadley said. “We are in fourth two points behind Austin, but it’s Austin’s last game. If we beat them, we’ll finish above them. In being in the top four, the threat comes from behind and Utah could be dangerous and they have two games left against NOLA and Houston. They will be looking to get two big wins there and surge up the table.”
“For us, it’s taking care of business next week,” Hoadley finished. “We are back on home soil and we are unbeaten there. If we come away with a win next week, it puts us in great shape to be in the playoffs and we finish the season at home versus Glendale.”