Analysis: Major League Rugby’s final

Date published: July 12 2018

Our analyst Sam Larner is back and looks at Major League Rugby’s final in America between the Seattle Seawolves and the Glendale Raptors.

There’s not much rugby going on at this moment, there’s some pre-season stuff and you can find more than enough motivational pre-season training videos on social media, mostly with the intention of selling season tickets for the year ahead. There’s not much analysis you can do on those videos though so I thought this week we’d turn our attention to some actual competitive rugby happening over in America.

Major League Rugby’s inaugural season has been taking place in the US, initially it has consisted of seven teams this year but will include franchises in New York and Los Angeles from next year; if all that works out then there are further planned teams in Washington DC, Dallas, Ontario, and Boston. This isn’t the first attempt to create a professional league in America but unlike PRO Rugby, the last effort, MLR isn’t dependent on washed up former professionals. The teams so far have been focused to the west of the country, the furthest east is New Orleans so there is plenty of the country left to expand in to. All the MLR games have so far been live on Facebook so if the league keeps expanding that’s just more and more opportunities to watch live games of rugby, that’s never a bad thing.

The final was a battle between the Seattle Seawolves and the Glendale Raptors. Due to the unique way the season was structured, the seven teams played eight games in total; which means they played four teams once and two teams twice, Seattle had played Glendale twice and lost both games during the regular season. This article will look at what Seattle did and will also introduce you to some of the key players from the final.

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This is a wonderful bit of play from Seattle fly-half Peter Smith. The Glendale backline is stretched with the hope that the scrum-half or openside flanker will come across the cover Smith. The Seawolves’ left wing, Peter Tiberio, starts directly behind his fly-half which causes significant problems, he can emerge into the action in a variety of ways and the defence can’t do anything until it’s clear where he’s going to come out. In this clip, he stays directly behind and as soon as the defensive cover from the scrum doesn’t come across it’s a simple two on one. Rugby is a very complicated game, but essentially you’re just trying to create two-on-ones or three-on-twos etc that you can exploit. After the initial break the handling is just lovely, during the final Seattle were constantly trying to keep the ball alive.

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This is just a wonderful bit of rugby and it’s similar in some ways to the first clip; firstly, it comes from a set-piece and secondly it works because of the wing coming off his wing and being active in the midfield. One of the big frustrations I have when watching lower level rugby is how rarely wings are allowed, or encouraged, to venture away from their wings. In this example, right wing Sequoyah Burke-Combs starts in a tightly grouped pack of players around the fly-half. When the ball is played wide from Smith, the attackers stay where they are, but so do the defenders and as the rest of the Seattle attack drifts there’s a simple little ball back inside to Burke-Combs. It’s then a combination of pace and awareness to get over towards his support on the far side and it’s a nice finish for full-back Mathew Turner, who some of you may remember from his time in the England Sevens team or Bristol Rugby.

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Although both of the first two clips came from set-pieces, none of their more expansive open play attacks would be possible without front foot ball. This was ably provided by their excellent pack, including in this example, loosehead Olive Kilifi. The prop takes this ball virtually at a standstill but he’s able to use a bit of footwork to get between two defenders and get over the gain line. There are two Seawolves in the ruck with three Raptors on the ground.

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This creates the next phase where the Raptors are down on numbers on the far side and Seattle have quick and powerful players there to exploit the space. Smith feeds the ball to Vili Toluta’u, who was exceptional, and he can gain significant yardage. Although this attack ultimately ends in a mistake, it’s clear that Seattle’s speed at playing the ball from the ground, the rare times it actually hit the deck, caused Glendale some serious issues.

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Another example here of what Toluta’u was capable of. One of the big challenges for any coach is to try and come up with a way to ensure you can run directly at the opposition fly-half from a line-out, he should be the easiest person to get past and if he does tackle you it’s likely you’ll already be over the gain line making the next phase easier. In this example Seattle solve that problem with ease, they set up a dummy maul and turn the Glendale forwards away from where they could help their fly-half. Toluta’u then charges off the back of this and towards fly-half Will Magie, who some might know from his brief time in the English leagues. Magie, and I don’t blame him, isn’t particularly interested in making the tackle. Toluta’u keeps his legs pumping and keeps the ball alive. They don’t score a try on this phase but they go over in the corner the very next one.

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Finally, this is just a lovely bit of blindside attack. Scrum-half Phil Mack, who has played numerous times for Canada and was also a member of the Ospreys, sees the space and lovely quick hands from number eight Riekert Hattingh unleashes Peter Tiberio. Crucially Hattingh doesn’t stop running and as the defenders over commit to Tiberio the forward is on hand on the inside to finish off a wonderful try.

Conclusion

All the Major League Rugby games can be found on Youtube and the MLR Facebook page and I would encourage you to go and take a look, the standard is really impressive. There have been talks about US rugby really taking off with interest in the NFL waning and fewer parents willing to send their kids off to American football practice. I think that this is wishful thinking, rugby is still very much a niche sport in America and although there are shoots of growth I can’t see the US really embracing rugby in the next 20 or even 50 years. One of the points made is that at the end of college you have a load of kids who were really talented American football players but not actually good enough to make it into the NFL or the other smaller pro leagues. The logic goes that these people would slip perfectly into rugby, but I’m not really buying that. There are 11 players from each team on the field at one time and between four to six of those are way too big to be effective as rugby players so that leaves either five or seven who could play rugby. What you are left with is a team of excellent athletes but athletes who have huge power over a short period of time. To turn them into people who are fit enough to play a full rugby game is a serious task in and of itself and that’s before you factor in learning the game. It has already proved very hard to bring rugby league players to union in any position other than wing and league shares at least 90% of its DNA with union, American football is nowhere near that. If America wants to realize its rugby potential then it’s going to be from the ground up and not by converting 20-year-old American football players.

by Sam Larner

Image credit: Richard Pecjak JR