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Ten points separated all eight active teams the opening week of Major League Rugby’s second season. San Diego's Paddy Ryan shoved New York's Paddy Ryan, Houston's Sam Windsor put his hand up for the MVP award as the Sabercats broke a seven-game losing streak, and both expansion teams showed well, one in victory and the other in defeat.
The quartet of matches kicked off Saturday with the NOLA Gold staving off a second-half comeback to beat the debutant Toronto Arrows 36-31, and that evening the Houston Sabercats won the Texas tussle 21-20 in Austin. Sunday, Rugby United New York felled the San Diego Legion, 28-23, in its first-ever match, and Seattle backed up last season’s championship with a 25-23 win over Glendale.
The parity was a welcome sign, suggesting the expansion teams aren’t going to be substandard and there will be plenty of gripping matches to convert new rugby fans. Stars are beginning to emerge, both old and new. Seattle versus Glendale was a sellout, and there was a healthy crowd for San Diego versus New York. NOLA’s field looked its best yet, and there was rain in Austin, but the fans who persevered all 80 minutes were rewarded with an exciting finish.
NOLA Gold 36-31 Toronto Arrows
It looked like a runaway in the first half. NOLA snatched the lead two minutes in with a try from first-year flyhalf Scott Gale, converted by the guy he pushed to fullback, JP Eloff. Toronto’s John Moonlight willed his way to a try through a couple of Gold defenders in the 17th minute, but NOLA poured on 17 points in the final eight minutes of the half to take a 24-7 lead into the break.
Toronto scored twice more on the other side of halftime through wing Dan Moore, cutting the deficit to a single score at 24-19. Australian 7s sensation Con Foley, wearing 12 for New Orleans, dotted down to pad the lead in the 68th minute. The Arrows and Gold traded three more scores in the final 10 minutes, with an Eloff try sealing the deal.
What'd we learn? After stocking the arsenal with several overseason mercernaries this offseason, New Orleans expected to win. It helped that the Arrows were without a few of their frontline players, as Rugby Canada wanted to protect a couple for the Americas Rugby Championship. While NOLA will be disappointed to not have put the Gold to the sword sooner, and the Arrows were certainly hoping to win their first-ever match, both teams probably walk away encouraged, NOLA that the offseason moves paid off and Toronto that it can compete in this league.
Houston Sabercats 21-20 Austin Elite
The Elite toted the rock better, but Houston’s Sam Windsor kicked it better, leading the Sabercats to a 21-20 win with seven successful penalty kicks. Austin’s two converted tries and lone penalty weren’t enough. One errant shot at goal from first-year French halfback Mickael Romera was too much for Houston and Windsor, who was perfect from the tee in victory. He nailed four penalties in the opening half, accounting for Houston’s 12-10 halftime lead.
Austin scored the game’s first try through hooker Chris Schade in the 13th minute, and first-year scrumhalf Mickael Romera added penalty right on halftime. Lock Josh Larsen scored the second try in 60th minute, and Romera slotted what could have been the game winner in the 74th minute, giving Austin a 20-18 lead, which it held into the last minute when a breakdown penalty against Austin during Houston’s last-gasp drive gave Windsor the chance to win the game.
What'd we learn? Sounds irrational week one, but this felt like a must-win for both franchises. Houston hadn't won since beating Austin in the second week of the inaugural season, and the Sabercats had never won on the road. The only team to finish below the Elite last season was Houston, the Elite had just beaten the Sabercats a couple of weeks prior in the preseason, and they were debuting at a new venue. This time, Houston got the win it needed.
Rugby United New York 25-23 San Diego Legion
Like in the other game featuring an expansion side, this one looked like it might be a runaway early. The difference is the expansion team was the one in danger of doing the running here, as New York led 15-0 until the final two minutes of the half. The RUNY backline was lethal early, with wings Chris Mattina and Connor Wallace-Sims dotting down in the first half. First-year Irish flyhalf Cathal Marsh converted one and added a penalty.
The host Legion stopped the bleeding just before halftime with a try from scrumhalf Nick Boyer, who shrugged off a tackle attempt from opposite Mike Petri and dove in from short distance. Flyhalf Joe Pietersen converted and added three penalties to start the second half and give the Legion a 16-15 lead.
Three lead changes in the final 15 minutes provided a dramatic finish. RUNY took the lead back with a Marsh penalty kick in the 65th minute, 18-16. Then Pietersen ran in a try to put the Legion up 23-18 with about nine minutes to play.
RUNY responded methodically, driving the ball down the pitch through several phases before a pass from Mike Petri intended for Ross Deacon was intentionally knocked on by San Diego’s Save Totovasau, spoiling a sure score and prompting a penalty try and a yellow card. The automatic conversion that comes with penalty tries proved the difference.
What'd we learn? For San Diego, the team which improved the most over the course of the first season, starting with a home loss is deflating. Beating a playoff team four time zones from home after training in brutal winter conditions cements New York as a contender.
Seattle Seawolves 20-18 Glendale Raptors
The rematch of last year’s final didn’t disappoint, with the host Seawolves snatching victory from the visiting Raptors in the 75th minute in front of a sold-out Starfire Stadium. The defending champs received their rings before the match, and an impressive week-one win suggests they’re in the hunt for more this season.
Brock Staller proved the hero for the Seawolves, scoring 15 of their 20 points with a try, two conversions and two penalties, including the game winner. Tighthead Tim Metcher dotted down in the first half, helping Seattle to a 10-6 halftime lead. The Raptors relied on two penalties from Will Magie for their first-half output, but John Ryberg crossed over for their first try just three minutes into the second stanza. Fullback Dylan Waikato-Thompson dotted down two minutes later, giving Glendale n 18-10 lead.
Staller’s try and conversion cut the deficit to one in the 61st minute, and his penalty in the 75th minute gave them the lead. Glendale won possession back and Seattle was penalized near midfield. Magie called for the tee from just over 50 meters out, but he didn’t have enough leg to pull out the win.
What'd we learn? Ben Cima is a big upgrade for Seattle at flyhalf. They played with more width, and Cima made some plays with ball in hand. Hanco Germishuys' importance to the success of the Raptors can't be understated. He made a big impression upon his return to Glendale. This game has quickly become the best rivalry in the fledgling league.