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The San Diego Legion host the Seattle Seawolves Sunday in the Major League Rugby Championship match. The match is going to be on CBS, and there is a chance Torero Stadium will sell out. This is a match worth being excited about.
Included in the things worth being excited about is San Diego's attack. Reviewing the last six matches, several things stood out about the Legion attack and I picked out some moments from two matches to illustrate those things. With this review, it is impossible to ignore how important J.P. du Plessis and Paddy Ryan have been this year.
Over their last six matches, eight of 24 San Diego tries came from some kind of turnover, including four clean interceptions. That is a lot. The Legion conceded the fewest points in the league, and they are always ready to turn aggressive defense into attack. Part of how San Diego transitions to attack well is the number of players on the field ready to handle the ball and make quick, attacking decisions.
Seattle, meanwhile, scored 25 tries, but only two came from turnovers.
Now, on to some details to look out for from San Diego's attack.
J.P. du Plessis often carries first-up from lineouts. Often, there is a runner inside and a runner outside. Joe Pietersen, or whomever is playing fly half, stays deep, ready for a ball out the back or the next phase. From a San Diego perspective, the hope is to create space for Pietersen, Mike Te’o (or whomever is playing fullback), and a wing. When it works, it is supremely simple.
Here is an example of du Plessis carrying to the line. Because there is a runner on each shoulder, the defenders cannot commit early to du Plessis, which helps him get over the gainline.
Here is the same set up, but du Plessis passes to Jasa Veremalua. Another successful first-phase from lineout.
Here is the same set-up against NOLA.
On Sunday, it is worth watching how well San Diego executes both that first phase pattern and, if executed well, how well the space is exploited in the second phase.
In the next clip, du Plessis is first receiver from a scrum. The outside center, Conor Kearns, stays tight on his shoulder while the fly half, Tai Enosa, runs a wider, deeper line. Enosa shifts the ball on, and the result is lots of space for Save Totovosau when the ball gets to him on the wing.
Here is Enosa at first-receiver. Despite relatively average passes in both clips, San Diego is still able to get the ball to Totovosau in space. The result? Simple looking tries.
Another big plus for San Diego is the quickness of Nate Augspuger. From the start of the season, it was clear he had to be on the field, but it was not clear he needed to start at scrum half. In the second half of the season, though, he has been exceptional. In the same Utah match, after the Warriors had already seen the above pattern a few times, Augspurger take the ball from the lineout. Ara Elkington has a chance at the tackle, but as highlighted in the clip, du Plessis is lurking in the background. The established threat keeps the defense guessing enough for Augspurger to step and score the try.
There are reasons Seattle might want to start Phil Mack at nine, but Augspurger is definitely quicker than Mack. J.P. Smith has a nifty step himself and is much more likely to successfully keep Augspurger in check.
When the attack stalls, there are several San Diego runners who can get it started again. More than other teams in the MLR--and by my casual observation, more than most teams generally--San Diego gives the ball to forwards moving at pace. Here is Oti Pifeleti taking the ball after wrapping around a ruck. The clip also includes what happens after when things are sloppy, but a quick step and then offload by Augspurger sets up a try. Clean, front-foot ball with a quick scrum half can be trouble even when things do not go according to plan.
Against NOLA, with Pietersen at 10, a different option of attack from set piece was showcased. When Pietersen receives the ball, the centers are tight to each other. When Pietersen sets to throw the pass, it is clear that he is passing to one of the centers, but I have watched this several times and am still amazed when the ball goes beyond du Plessis and reaches the hands of outside center Ryan Matyas. Matyas might also have been amazed since he did not take the pass cleanly.
That pass from Pietersen is one not many in the MLR can make, maybe no one else. Here is another example of the same pass. Matyas catches it, but is tackled well before he can shift the ball any wider.
Things do not quite work for the Legion in either of these sequences, but the potential is clear.
Finally, here is a passage that captures lots of why San Diego is dangerous. 1) Turnover ball. 2) Forwards, especially Paddy Ryan involved both as blunt force and skillful players. That is a big pass thrown by a big man to start things rolling. 3) Forwards taking the ball at pace, or offering themselves as options for the defense to ponder. 4) Mike Te'o scoring a try.
One of the things that stands out is how often San Diego forwards adjust their running lines with ball-in-hand close to the defensive line. This could be characterized as smart running lines, but it could also be characterized as footwork in contact. Either way, the result is front-foot ball.
Yes, San Diego concede too many penalties, and, yes, Seattle has attacking threats that this piece has totally ignored by focusing on San Diego. However, with the attacking talent in the pack, Augspurger's ability to perform magic, and Pietersen's clutch kicking, San Diego is my pick to win Sunday.