The 2019 Major League Rugby season came to an end in spectacular fashion on Sunday. A sold-out crowd at Torero Stadium were treated to an absorbing Championship Final that saw their home town San Diego Legion defeated by the Seattle Seawolves, a try in stoppage time handing the 26-23 result to the defending champions.
From the opening whistle the match delivered all that fans could hope for. A thunderous tackle from Māori All Black forward Jordan Manihera on Brock Staller set the tone as the audience roared with approval. San Diego dominated possession and territory in the opening quarter but were limited to only two penalty goals from Joe Pietersen, with a Nakai Penny intervention thwarting a certain try.
Seattle came out a different side following the hydration break. George Barton broke through the line to set up a try for Stephan Coetzee, and then a trick play at the lineout caught the Legion napping as JP Smith went through on the short side. Staller converted both to give the Seawolves a 14-6 halftime lead.
The second half resembled the first, with San Diego quickest out of the gates. An overlap put left winger Nick Boyer in at the corner, and then Manihera stretched his arm out to touch the ball on the base of the post with Pietersen’s extras making it 20-14 for the Legion with 10 minutes to play.
Phil Mack made his mark coming off the bench, sparking an attacking move that began at halfway and ended with Riekert Hattingh taking a short ball off the scrumhalf to squeeze in under the defense. The conversion proved too difficult for Staller, leaving the Seawolves still one point shy.
With San Diego in possession and on the attack, Pietersen stepped back in the pocket and drilled a 45-metre drop goal through the posts to take the game out of penalty range. It left two minutes and change on the clock, however, and Seattle were in no mood to wave the white flag.
The restart went long and Pietersen was forced to kick to touch. It was a good clearance, out to halfway, but a high tackle on Staller gave the Seawolves just what they needed to move into scoring position. Smith’s kick found the corner, and the lineout drive worked to perfection with some of the backs joining in to give it the final nudge over the line. Brad Tucker came up with the ball, the winning try, and the Seawolves stood by as Staller knocked over the final conversion of the season to end the game.
While Canada’s only MLR team – the Toronto Arrows – did not make the final, Seattle’s victory was almost as sweet. Seven Canadian internationals took the field and all played a significant part in the victory. Cam Polson could not play, currently recovering from a knee injury, but was more than happy to celebrate the famous victory with his teammates. For Polson, Penny, Mack, Barton, and Staller, it’s back-to-back titles. Djustice Sears-Duru, Jake Ilnicki, and Jeff Hassler have claimed their first.
Overall the season has been a smashing success for Canadians. The Arrows finished third overall in their opening foray into professional rugby, earning a spot in the Semi Final and tieing the MLR record for most consecutive wins along the way. Toronto had an average home attendance of 2,130 despite playing in two different venues and dealing with some uncooperative weather. This was slightly above the league average but it’s worth noting that the RFU Championship – England’s second division and historically a home for many Canadian internationals – averaged just 1,713 this past season.
The value of the competition cannot be overstated in terms of contributions to the Senior Men’s National Team. Of the initial 43-man squad named by Kingsley Jones to prepare for the Pacific Nations Cup – and ultimately the World Cup – 26 are MLR players with half coming from the Arrows.
A total of 52 Canadian-eligible players took the field for five different teams, 17 based in the USA. In total they appeared in 514 games, started 355, combined for nearly 28,000 minutes played, scored 79 tries and contributed 596 points. Dan Moor and Eric Howard were regular captains of the Arrows and NOLA Gold respectively, with Lucas Rumball also a leading the Arrows and Josh Larsen vice-captain at Austin Elite. Canada also had two match officials involved – Moe Chaudhry and Robin Kaluzniak.
In terms of individual achievement, aside from having 8 MLR Shield winners, Brock Staller won the scoring title with an incredible 223 points, 60 more than second-place Joe Pietersen. Staller also played more minutes than anyone, appearing in every minute of Seattle’s 18 games during the season. Peter Milazzo was among the league’s top lineout performers and was on the field for 94% of Toronto’s campaign, marginally ahead of Dan Moor.
Eric Howard’s 9 tries scored was amazingly only second-best for a hooker! New York’s Dylan Fawsitt tied Glendale winger John Ryberg with a league-leading 13 tries. NOLA’s Tristan Blewett was the only other player to break into double-digits with 12. Despite missing the first 6 games of the season, Austin flanker Moe Abdelmonem was the league’s most successful turnover artist at the breakdown.
Canada nearly held the distinction of supplying both the league’s youngest and oldest players. 19-year-old Arrows winger Avery Oitomen is just 5 days younger than San Diego hooker Kapeli Pifeleti, the only teenagers to play in MLR this season. At the other end of the spectrum, 37-year-old prop Hubert Buydens was the oldest player by 5 days, squeaking in ahead of teammate Kane Thompson… that is until Utah surprised everyone by calling former USA hooker Blake Burdette out of retirement to play a few minutes at the impressive age of 39.
The league now hits the off-season with the 2020 season set to begin three weeks later in the year on February 15. With three new teams – the New England FreeJacks (Boston), Old Glory DC (Washington), and Rugby ATL (Atlanta) – joining up, there will be new faces and new opportunities for Canadian players, particularly some returning from Europe. A new East-West conference format will also begin, with the Arrows looking to secure their place as the East representative in the Championship Final.
These are exciting times for rugby in North America. At the end of two memorable seasons of Major League Rugby, it looks as though professional rugby is at long last here to stay.