It’s “INTERNATIONAL RUGBY DAY” so wear your favorite team’s colors.
MATCH PREVIEW: LEGION HOST UTAH IN WEEK 4
One of four teams to have played each week of the young 2019 MLR season, the San Diego Legion (2-1) concludes a four-game homestand Saturday, Feb. 17, as 2018 Semifinalists Utah Warriors (1-0) visit Torero Stadium for “International Rugby Day.” Fans around the country can watch the 2 p.m. PT kickoff live on ESPN+.
The Warriors, like first-year Rugby United New York, have played just one regular season game thus far – a 17-9 victory away to Austin Elite back in Week 2. To keep up with the rest of the league in terms of continuity and fitness in high-intensity situations, Utah hosted and beat 2020 challengers New England Free Jacks, 70-15, at its training facility Feb. 9.
LEADING FROM THE FRONT
While not much is known about the one-sided exhibition in Herriman, Utah, Head Coach Alf Daniels’ Warriors were able to open the season victorious in a different fashion than the predominantly back-led attack featured throughout 2018. Flankers Ara Elkington and Lance Williams scored the only tries in the season debut, rewarding new Forwards Coach Stevie Scott for the offseason preparations in the set pieces. It was his charges, however, that ultimately allowed the Elite on the scoreboard through ill-discipline.
No. 8 John Cullen, Franco Van Den Berg, and Williams each committed infractions that set up the kicking tee for Austin fly half Tim Guillimin. Second-half substitute Maikeli Mudu, an intimidating Fijian lock, threw his weight around only to receive a yellow card late in the match, as did Williams.
The disadvantage in numbers hampered the attack in the dying stages, as the pounding forward play made way for reactive defensive stands. Van Den Berg and fellow international front-row recruit Logan Daniels provided stability in the scrum for roughly 60 minutes until their numbers were called for substitutions. Lock Matt Jensen has proven himself capable on the international stage following a long career at BYU and set up the first try of the match with power in the lineout.
On the home side, Head Coach Rob Hoadley opted for consistency in selecting the same forwards crews in Weeks 1 and 2 and has gone back to that setup for Sunday’s matchup. Australian prop Paddy Ryan has made an immediate impact on the team, receiving two First XV of the Week nods and taking on vice captaincy duties, with Dean Muir in the hooker position helping to turn around a previously-dominant Seawolves scrum for a penalty try in Week 2.
The additions of Muir and Ryan aid a front row that has seen the departure of influential internationals like Pat O’Toole and Anthony Purpura, but young brothers Fakaosi and Kapeli Pifeleti have risen to the occasion. The prop and hooker, respectively, relieved their counterparts in the opening two rounds before anchoring the pack together from the opening whistle in last weekend’s win.
Eagle Lou Stanfill, not to be outdone by his juniors, earned himself First XV honors against Houston from the second row for being a pain in the backside of the opposition on both sides of the ball. He and Keni Nasoqeqe, who kicked off the valiant comeback with a try, will need to continue poaching the ball on defense to gain possession and fatiguing defenders with hard runs to open space for a dangerous back line.
Chris Turori has been solid in the loose forwards despite a yellow card in the season opener, during which time the Legion ascended and scored rather than conceded. No. 8 Drew Gaffney and Devin Short – an impressive crossover to rugby identified during the “Next Olympic Hopeful” project – offer extra strength from the back of the scrum and with ball in hand. Versatile reserve Psalm Wooching returns from injury to slide into the matchday 23, with Siaosi Mahoni also in line for a season debut.
It was a surprisingly quiet opening night from the Utah backs as far as the score sheet goes, with 2018 All-MLR First Team selection and League-leading try scorer Tonata Lauti (wing) and Tonga’s all-time leading try scorer, Fetu’u Vainikolo, called on defensively more than offensively. Nate Augspurger and Ryan Matyas have the speed to counter their opposite numbers as well as the footwork to put pressure on the outside of the field, earning their first starts of the season. The Swiss Army knife that is Mike Te’o will stand as the last line of defense and first to chase kicks from the full back position, creating an All-USA Eagle back three.
First-year Warrior and captain Tim O’Malley accounted for seven points from the inside center position previously occupied by standout American international Paul Lasike alongside Jeremy Misailega (outside center), a 2018 MLR Champion with Seattle. Rio 2016 gold medalist Jasa Veremalua has moved in from the wing in recent weeks to solidify the Legion’s midfield at the outside center position, creating havoc with an elusive 6-foot-5 frame, but makes way for Dylan Audsley on the Saint Mary’s College graduate’s return from international duty. He and Springbok JP du Plessis are creative forces commanding respect, able to find gaps in the back field with the boot as easily as those in the defensive line with a pass.
Warriors Backs Coach James Semple joined the organization in the offseason as a player-coach and lasted 40 minutes at fly half in Week 2, filling in for departed Tongan international Kurt Morath and on-duty Brazilian Josh Reeves. Ian Luciano (scrum half) and Semple found life difficult in a slog against Austin and will need to keep up with mobile Legion scrum half Nick Boyer and the accurate boot of experienced half-back partner and captain Joe Pietersen.
Though Pietersen was cautiously removed from the Seawolves game before 20 minutes had expired, Boyer filled in admirably with kicking duties. The two have combined for 35 of San Diego’s 67 points scored through the third round of the season and will look to spread the wealth against the Warriors.
DEFENDING HOME TURF
Utah’s second match of the 2019 season is the same fixture that saw the Legion secure its first victory in 2018, a 31-24 win at home for San Diego. The Warriors may arguably have fresher legs with a less demanding schedule through the waning winter months, but the week-in, week-out regimen has San Diego in form for Week 4.
Purchase discounted tickets for Sunday’s home match using the promo code LEGIONLOVE. Stay tuned for exciting game-day information at Torero Stadium by following @SDLegion on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.