DENVER – One of the best matches of Major League Rugby’s second season ended in a 28-28 draw.
If Saturday night’s match between the San Diego Legion and Glendale Raptors was a boxing match, it was a 12-round brawl between two prizefighters. Both Glendale (3-2-2) and San Diego (4-2-1) had their chances to win the match, and each time the opponent countered with a big defensive stand, a try or by flipping the territory to completely turn the momentum around.
Clinging to a seven-point lead in stoppage time, the Raptors defense, deep in their own territory, stuffed the Legion a handful of times in an attempt to put the match on ice. With one last scrum, the Legion worked their way from the south touchline back to the north and found their wing Mike Te’o out wide with numbers on his side. Te’o stepped hard off his right foot, broke a Glendale tackle and handed the ball to a supporting JP du Plessis who scored the match’s final try in the 83rd minute to cut the Raptors lead to just two points.
“We knew that they were going to be a tough side,” Raptors’ wing John Ryberg said after the match. “We knew to keep battling. Those last 20 minutes was when we needed to get ahead and finish the game. We came up a little short. We played defense as long as we could at the end and unfortunately, they kind of broke us in the end.”
San Diego fly-half and captain Joe Pietersen was faced with a rather difficult conversion to tie up the match and get the Legion out of Glendale with three points instead of one.
“Joe is a fantastic character whose leadership was personified in the coolness he showed throughout the game,” head coach Rob Hoadley said. “He is a run, pass, kick threat and drives the team around the field. His kicking was immaculate under pressure and rounded off excellent work by the team in scoring the four tries.”
Pietersen hit all four of his conversions in the match.
“It’s unfortunate to get the tie, but there is still a lot of good to take away from that game,” Ryberg said after the match. “When they get that yellow card right at the beginning of the second half, that’s when we need start doing damage.”
Aside from the final 10 minutes, arguably the biggest moment of the match came in the 46th minute when San Diego’s Keni Nasoqeqe was given a yellow card for swinging his arm and hitting Glendale’s Zach Fenoglio in the ruck. The Raptors, who trailed 14-7 at the time of the card after tries from Jordan Manihera and Faka’osi Pifeleti in the first half, took full advantage of San Diego’s mistake. They used tries from outside center Mika Kruse in the 49th minute and scrum-half Shaun Davies in the 54th minute to take a 21-14 lead.
“Very frustrating,” Hoadley said of the tie. “The sin bin period hurt us. Conceding 14 points after having control in the game, in a position where we were ready to take three points and a 10 point lead, before that decision. In the circumstances of the game, it was a great effort to come back and earn the three points.”
San Diego responded with their own try right before the 60-minute hydration break on what was arguably one of the craftiest plays of the season. Wing Connor Kearns, after spotting some space behind Glendale’s defense, put a grubber through to Te’o. Te’o walked the touchline, gathered the ball and passed it to fullback Kyle Rogers who, after being stopped just before the try line, offloaded the ball to outside center Dylan Audsley who finished the sequence with a try to tie the match at 21 points apiece.
The Raptors were the first to strike after the 60-minute hydration break when fullback Dylan Taikato-Simpson threw his patented no-look, flick to wing Harley Davidson who took the ball in for a try. Fly-half Will Magie nailed his fourth conversion of the day to give the Raptors a 28-21 lead in the 66th minute.
The next 15 minutes were filled with big defensive stands by the Raptors, big defensive scrums by the Legion, and ultimately came down to du Plessis’ try and Pietersen’s conversion.
The three points that both Glendale and San Diego both earned for the tie and the four-try bonus point turned out to be incredibly important. Glendale’s 23 points on the season places them in the fourth and final playoff spot through eight weeks of competition while San Diego’s 22 points keeps them right on Glendale’s heels.
The Raptors will have their hands full next week as they travel to take on third-place Rugby United New York (5-1).
“We just have to come out and play. It’s not easy to travel,” Ryberg said of the upcoming match. “It’s going to be a hard travel day but we just have to shut that out and come ready to play and give a full 80 minutes.”
San Diego will enjoy a week off before traveling up to Starfire Sports Stadium to take on the second-place Seawolves on March 30.
“We will go back to our fundamentals, look after the ball, and very much look forward to our next trip to Seattle,” Hoadley said. “The league has been fantastic so far, and we are excited to be involved in more high-quality battles like last night.”
Tries: John Ryberg, Mika Kruse, Shaun Davies, Harley Davidson
Conversions: Will Magie (4/4)
Penalty Goals: Will Magie (0/1)
SAN DIEGO LEGION
Conversions: Joe Pietersen (4/4)
Penalty Goals: N/A
Colton can be reached at email@example.com.