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The epic first season of Major League Rugby came to close Saturday when the Seattle Seawolves were declared the inaugural champions over the Glendale Raptors. After a tight, low-scoring first half, Glendale scored the first two tries of the second half only to have the Seawolves come back with the final 15 points of the match to win 23-19. Each team hit highs and lows during the test but it was Seattle who hoisted the America's Championship Shield as kings of the MLR.
The victory was even more special and significant because of the stage and avenging the losses from the regular season. “We stuck to what we have been doing all year with the Sea Wall,” fullback Mat Turner said. “We got our spacing right identifying that Glendale liked to play off #10 and had a mindset of putting as much pressure as we could on Will Magie and get him to the ground. We also knew they would be trying to play down in our half and we cultivated a plan to negate that threat which we felt we dealt with pretty well.”
Down 19-8 after 56 minutes of play, Seattle righted the ship and clawed back into the match. “We spoke and said to keep pushing and keep doing what we are doing,” scrumhalf Phil Mack said. “We knew we would wear them down eventually if we kept the ball. The group just hung tough together and it paid off.”
“It’s easy to say that it’s the tries that turned the game around, but for me, it was the moment when we were under poles after they scored two quick tries,” Turner added.
“There was a special feeling, the correct players spoke and we pushed the reset button. With that reset button on came fresh legs (reserves) with a lot of energy and brought us back from the ‘dead’ and now we all wake up the first ever champions of the MLR. Mission accomplished.”
“It was everyone buying into the team regardless of what was going on with the adversities we faced this season and being able to come out victorious with all odds against us,” eightman Riekert Hattingh said. “I can’t think of a specific deciding factor other then we knew we were applying the pressure we just needed to finish the opportunities we created, and specifically did that with the two tries in the final 20 minutes.”
With contributions coming from everywhere on the pitch, the MLR named Vili Toluta’u as the MVP. “Honestly it was a blessing,” the flanker said. “Everybody on the squad deserves the MVP title, or a watch, or maybe even a championship ring - because they all played a big part in the game.”
“Without their support, this wouldn't have been possible. It was the brotherhood on this team that motivated me to fight until the tank was empty. There were some errors I made that could've changed the result of the game but the boys kept it positive and concentrated on what was ahead of us. They didn't put any pressure on me to make it up, just play our structure and the game plan will work.”
In addition to Toluta’u, player/coach Mack said, “I am proud of the whole group and it truly was a team win. If I were to single a few guys out, Riekert Hattingh had a great game with ball in hand and caused all sorts of problems for Glendale. Sequoyah Burke-Combs would be another player who really stepped up for us. He was a late addition to our squad this year and earned a spot on the team, and was rewarded with a start in the final. Pretty incredible.”
On the other side of the ball, Glendale was obviously disappointed with the result but was encouraged regarding the future of the squad and the league.
“We gave away too many penalties and weren’t accurate enough on attack,” Raptors head coach David Williams said. “Seattle was the better team and well done to them. The Seawolves spread well on defense and won the physicality on attack. It was a great first season to kick off the MLR and the players were immense as always. We will learn from this and move on and get better.”
“If you want to win a championship you cannot turn the ball over as often as we did,” coach Kieran Browner stated. “I think there was nothing new from their defense. They brought line speed as they had all season. We were our own worst enemy. At halftime, we genuinely felt we were in control of the game, but we failed to close the game out.”
Scrumhalf Shaun Davies was in the center of the action and said, “Seattle came in with a good gameplan to disrupt our pattern and they executed that well. Unfortunately, we didn’t react well enough. At halftime, we were down by one point after having almost no possession. We put ourselves in a position to win the game, unfortunately, we just didn’t follow through.”
“On a positive note, I spoke to the boys after the game about how the MLR is here to stay and we all need to keep the momentum of the league going.”
Toluta’u summed up the inaugural season by saying, “The first season of MLR was a definitely a success to me. Not only did we win the championship, but the entertainment we provided to our local fans, North America, and beyond was a quality standard of rugby. I had people come up to me saying it was their first rugby game they had ever attended and they can't wait for more, especially in Seattle, where the fan base is always as loyal as they come. Overall, this first season proved that MLR will be a success for the future of American rugby.”
And as for Toluta’u’s trademark mane looking great all game long, he said, “I just pick my hair out before the game and I shake my head a few times during the game and it will fluff out to its natural habitat.”