This past weekend’s Major League Rugby Semi Finals did not disappoint in terms of excitement, though Canada did see their only team come up short in Seattle.
National Senior Men’s coach Kingsley Jones was in attendance to watch as 26 Canadian-eligible players took the field with the World Cup training squad announcement just days away.
While it was a frustrating finish for the squad, they can look back on a highly successful season that saw them finish third in the regular season and come within a few points and bit of luck from reaching the Final in the first time of asking. Along the way they also tied an MLR record by winning seven consecutive matches heading into the Semi Final.
A slow start from Toronto gave the defending champions a considerable buffer to work with. Several handling errors gifted possession to the Seawolves, and a wicked bounce from a Ben Cima kick ended in an early try for JP Smith. Jeff Hassler broke through near the half-hour mark, and Brock Staller added two conversions and three penalty goals to make it 23-0 approaching halftime.
The Arrows got some hope just before the break when they finally got some sustained possession. Gastón Mieres was open on the left side to score, with Sam Malcolm landing the sideline conversion. Toronto had recovered from a 20-3 deficit against San Diego earlier in the season, so the 23-7 halftime score was not insurmountable.
It was the visitors who looked the better side in the second half. They couldn’t quite break through early in the half but Mike Sheppard picked off a pass from Smith and sprinted clear with Malcolm’s extras making it 23-14. The pressure stayed on with a Malcolm penalty closing the gap to just six points. Unfortunately that’s where their luck ran out.
A couple calls went against them and suddenly the Arrows were back on their own line. Peter Milazzo was singled out for collapsing a driving maul and the flanker was sent to the bin as a penalty try was awarded. Despite being a man down Toronto looked to have scored themselves soon after, but Sheppard’s efforts were called back by the TMO on what appeared a marginal decision.
Toronto won’t advance but support from the north will now shift towards Seattle with their seven Canadian internationals certain to feature in Sunday’s final. Djustice Sears-Duru, Jake Ilnicki, Nakai Penny, Phil Mack, George Barton, Staller, and Hassler will all be taking the trip south to San Diego where the Legion await after edging Rugby United New York earlier on Sunday.
It was an equally absorbing match in front of a huge crowd at Torero Stadium. New York’s vaunted driving maul worked a charm with two tries coming before halftime, with San Diego replying with a converted try and penalty goal to make it 12-10 in favor of the visitors at halftime.
Some off-the-ball scuffles only added to the intensity and the second half had viewers on the edge of their seat. A quicky try from Italian lock Josh Furno put San Diego ahead but New York came straight back with a penalty goal from Cathal marsh, and a converted try scored by James Denise.
RUNY looked to have secured the win but a mistake in the 75th minute gave away possession and eventually the game as man-of-the-match JP du Plessis scored in the corner from a prolonged Legion attack. Joe Pietersen lined up the conversion from the touchline with the scores level and only seconds on the clock and the Super Rugby veteran cooly split the uprights to win the game for San Diego.
The MLR Shield will be on the line at Torero Stadium for the second year in a row on Sunday only this time it won’t be a neutral venue with San Diego very much home town favorites. Seattle will look to defend their title and despite finishing second in the standings have the approval of the pundits. It promises to be a thrilling contest and will be broadcast live on CBS, with a Facebook stream available for Canadian viewers.
MLR CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL
Seattle Seawolves at San Diego Legion
Sunday, June 16
1pm PT, 4pm ET