The Toronto Arrows kicked up their heels for a well-earned bye week but there was plenty of action to keep track of in Week 17 of the Major League Rugby season. With only three weeks left of the regular season and six teams in the hunt for the four Semi Final slots, every result had an impact on the standings and there was one major surprise.
In what was surely the upset of the season, the NOLA Gold crashed to a 27-20 defeat against the Houston SaberCats. The Gold entered the match just one point behind the top spot on the table and were playing on their home turf in New Orleans, but Houston were on a mission under interim coach Paul Emerick and the Cats showed they still have teeth.
It was all square at halftime with Canada’s Eric Howard, NOLA’s captain, scoring his 9th try of the season from short range just after the hydration break. The second half was closely fought but it was Houston who scored the critical blow at the hour mark through Uruguayan back row Alejandro Nieto. Down 10 points in the 79th minute, the Gold settled for a penalty goal to earn a losing bonus point.
Hubert Buydens also started in the Gold front row, having played in all but one of NOLA’s games this season. Kyle Baillie continues to be sidelined by an ankle injury suffered against Austin and is in a race against time to be fit in time to make the playoffs.
A wild contest at Glendale’s Infinity Park saw 13 tries scored between the two sides. The Raptors had never been beaten in MLR competition at their home fortress, but the defending champion Seattle Seawolves brought that streak to a halt in a 53-36 road win.
Nakai Penny continued his impressive run of form playing 80 minutes at openside flanker. Phil Mack was initially on the bench but was summoned as an injury replacement just three minutes in and steered the team the rest of the way. Brock Staller would add 18 points to his league-leading tally that now sees him nearly 50 ahead of his closest competitor.
Djustice Sears-Duru went an hour at loosehead prop for Seattle, with new signing Jake Ilnicki making his MLR bow as a second half sub at tighthead. More welcome news for Canadian fans was the return of Jeff Hassler from a nine-month sabbatical. The former Ospreys winger come on late in the first half as a midfield replacement for George Barton.
On the other side of the pitch, Noah Barker was again the starter for Glendale at loosehead. The versatile front rower has been an automatic selection for the Raptors since arriving in late March.
An exciting game in Salt Lake City saw the Utah Warriors running the first-place San Diego Legion close, but ultimately falling short by a final score of 31-21. A late try from former USA lock John Cullen made things interesting but a last-minute intercept from current Eagles star Mike Te’o sealed the deal for San Diego. The bonus-point win was enough to earn them the distinction of being the first team to officially qualify for the Semi Finals.
Rounding out the weekend was a somewhat sluggish affair at Coney Island’s MCU Park where Rugby United New York defeated Austin Elite 27-7. The Elite were winless entering the match and now have only two games left to salvage something from what has been a wholly disappointing campaign, while New York’s forwards did just enough to earn the much-needed bonus point to nudge ahead of the Arrows into 4th overall.
Four Canadian players suited up for Austin. Second row Josh Larsen was the only starter, with back row pair Moe Abdelmonem and Travis Larsen coming in off the bench in the second half. Aidan McMullan was an unused replacement while Doug Fraser was a late withdrawal from the match day squad just before kickoff.
There are four matches against this weekend, with two absolutely pivotal for the playoff race. The appetizer will be Saturday’s all-Texas derby in Houston as the SaberCats host Austin Elite at the new AVEVA Stadium. Both teams are out of the running but the visitors will be desperate to erase the goose egg in their win column.
Sunday features three matches. New York host NOLA with a potential playoff spot on the line for both teams. Seattle can clinch their Semi Final spot with a win over Utah at Starfire Stadium. Meanwhile all eyes will be on downtown Toronto where the Arrows welcome the Raptors in what is certain to be a fierce contest between the two rivals. Glendale are already on the brink of elimination while Toronto need a win to jump back up the ladder.
Tickets for Sunday’s match at Lamport Stadium are now available on the Arrows website. All four matches will be streamed live for Canadian viewers on the MLR Facebook page, with Toronto’s game against Glendale also broastcast nationwide on GameTV.
WEEK 18 SCHEDULE
Austin Elite at Houston SaberCats
Saturday, May 25
3pm PT, 6pm ET
NOLA Gold at Rugby United New York
Sunday, May 26
10am PT, 1pm ET
Glendale Raptors at Toronto Arrows
Sunday, May 26
11am PT, 2pm ET
Utah Warriors at Seattle Seawolves
Sunday, May 26
5pm PT, 8pm E