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Saturday’s matches of Major League Rugby’s penultimate weekend were full of excitement, high scoring, and drama for the playoff hunt. A total of 18 tries were dotted down on Saturday as scoring came in bursts in both tests. After trailing at the half, NOLA took advantage of Utah’s high error count to score three straight tries and a penalty to give the Gold enough cushion to beat the Warriors, 46-43. In the nightcap, Glendale remained undefeated after going down 11-0 to second place Seattle only to score five unanswered tries and shut out the potent Seawolf offense to win 33-11.
Glendale wrapped up the #1 seed in the playoffs with the victory and Seattle claimed the second seed. The third and fourth spots are still in play and Sunday’s Austin Elite at San Diego match will weigh heavily on the standings. Austin is currently in third with 18 points and is one point ahead of Utah and NOLA at 17 points. San Diego is in sixth with 16 points with two games left and can leapfrog into the playoffs with wins this week and next week at Glendale. Utah can also sneak into the postseason with a victory over Houston next week and a little help from other teams. Suffice to say, the postseason picture is still muddy.
NOLA Gold at the Utah Warriors
Under the hot sun at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah, the Utah Warriors and the NOLA Gold battled to keep their MLR playoff dreams alive. What followed was an 80-minute slugfest with six lead changes and big momentum swings. Although Utah scored more tries than NOLA, ultimately, the Gold capitalized on the Warriors’ errors to kick four penalties and a drop goal for the 46-43 win.
“I give credit to the boys as they really dug deep today,” NOLA head coach Nate Osborne said of the result. “We came in with a good week of preparation and a good understanding that in the last three weeks we haven’t done ourselves any justice and we looked pretty poor. It was all on us and we really came here looking for respect. When you get 40+ points put on you three weeks in a row and were never in the games, it is easy to throw the season away. We really turned up today to get the respect back.”
Utah started on fire with the backs carving up the NOLA defense as Don Pati dotted down two tries in the first ten minutes for the 12-0 lead. The Gold clawed back into the game with an eightman pick from Matt Hughston followed by a drop goal and a penalty by JP Eloff. NOLA picked up its first lead in the 30th minute when Tim Maupin cut to the inside for the 18-12 score.
Solid ball movement and phase play set up a Tonata Lauti try for Utah to regain the lead, but Eloff answered with his second penalty to get it back at 21-19. With no time remaining, Pati’s lethal counterattack led to forwards ball and Johnny Linehan finishing the play off to close the half with Utah up 26-21.
At the break, Osborne preached defense to the Gold. “Our defense was actually pretty good and we were playing in the right parts of the field, but all of the tries that they scored were one-off tackles that would race 60 meters for the score. We talked about playing in their end with some kick chase, made sure we weren’t falling for their dummies, and not letting Don Pati win the game on his own. We set the defense in the second half, played off the ball, made them turn it over to us, and played in their end rather than our own end like in the last three games.”
The Gold took the message and converted it into points and momentum to begin the second half. NOLA reeled off 22 straight points in 15 minutes as Joeli Tikoisuva, Eloff, and Cameron Troxler each scored and Eloff connected on two conversions and a penalty in the span. Utah rallied in the final 25 minutes as Josh Anderson, Fetu’u Vainikolo, and Ray Forrester scored, but Eloff’s fourth penalty 62nd minute was enough for a three-point lead with a minute left. The NOLA defense held in the final stanza not allowing Utah to cross midfield forcing a turnover and a kick to touch to end the game.
Eloff earned the player of the game for his 28 point output and leadership on the pitch. “We knew we could hang with them and we needed to pull together as a team. We got knocked down in the beginning but we pulled together, stuck to the structure, and the result showed itself.
“The last three weeks have been rough with the losses we’ve had. We had to step up, show character, and show respect not just for us, but show that we were willing to fight. In the last minute of the game, we defended out hearts out.”
For Utah, the loss came down to unforced errors, turnovers, dropped balls, 50/50 passes, and a lack of discipline that plagued the team. “[The loss] was brought about by our own mistakes,” Utah head coach Alf Daniels stated. “If we can control our game and eliminate the unforced errors, cut our the 50/50 passes, and keep our discipline, we are probably 10-15 points better than most teams we’ve played.”
“It was a good game, back and forth, but we just didn’t want it enough to win the game,” Utah fullback Don Pati said. “We were down almost 20 points in the second half, but we didn’t roll over. We have the ability to finish the game, but we let ourselves down with our mistakes. The attitude of not wanting it and making mistakes cost us the game.”
Despite the loss, Utah has an outside chance of making the playoffs with a win next week against Houston and some help. “We deserve to finish well, but we have to earn it. We’ll go back this week and we’ll have a good long hard look at ourselves. We’re a team that is really proud with a wonderful fan base and community. We’re hurting and we don’t like to lose. We have a real tiny lifeline left and we are going to give everything we’ve got to make one last big push on a big game.”
Seattle Seawolves at Glendale Raptors
The first meeting between the top two teams in the MLR ended with the Raptors edging Seawolves by four points in Seattle. On Saturday in Glendale, Colo., the home team kept its unbeaten streak alive with a 33-11 comeback victory. Glendale started sluggishly and Seattle played very well in first 30 minutes for the 11-0 lead. The Raptors recovered to score two tries before the half and then three more after the break while shutting out the Seattle offense for the final 50 minutes of the game.
When asked what changed from the end of the first half to the second, Glendale head coach David Williams said, “We needed to adjust our defensive accuracy and physicality. Once that got sorted we could create pressure and turn that into points... Once we created defensive line speed and physicality, we created opportunities for attack due to our pressure. Once we held onto the ball through multi-phase attack, we created opportunities.”
Seattle’s day began as well as to be expected when inside center Mozac Samson was the beneficiary of consistent phase play to barrel his way in for the game’s opening score. After missing the conversion, Will Holder made up for it with a penalty in the 17th minute followed by a drop goal in the 30th minute to extend the tally to 11-0.
In the 35th minute, Glendale broke up the goose egg with a Chad London poach and 65-meter scamper for the try. The Raptors took another bite out of the Seattle defense a few minutes later as Zach Fenoglio scored off a driving maul to take the 14-11 halftime lead.
Riding the momentum from the end of the first half, Glendale kept the pedal on the floor scoring three more tries in the opening 15 minutes of the second half. Mika Kruse, London, and Connor Cook dotted down tries for the Raptors and the defense held their ground for the entire half. After the initial start, it was a dominant performance from the league leader.
With multiple players out again for national team duties and injuries, players stepped up to fill the void. “Our depth has been called upon time and time again this season,” Williams explained. “We had three 19-year-olds playing tonight with eight players away or out injured. Players fit into our system and culture extremely well and efficiently and it showed our culture and high standards we aim to achieve each and every game.”
With the victory, the Raptors secured the #1 seed and could meet Seattle again in the MLR final on July 7th. However, there is plenty of rugby left between now and then and Glendale won’t be looking any further than what is right in front of them.
“We have to keep improving," Williams concluded. "We haven’t won anything yet. We will prepare well for San Diego and keep progressing. San Diego has good players across the board and has numerous threats. We had a tough game against them last time and will expect the same again next weekend.”