Under cloudy skies and with intermittent rain and snow, the Glendale Raptors hosted Austin Elite Rugby at Infinity Park for both teams’ inaugural professional match on Saturday. The typically fickle spring weather in Colorado didn’t dampen the spirits of either team, with both displaying the high-level competition and poise that will be a mainstay of professional rugby in the United States. With temps in the high 30s throughout the first half, the inaugural season of professional rugby got underway. The season-opening game of the week, Saturday’s match was broadcast live on CBS Sports Network. Throughout the inaugural MLR season, CBSSN will broadcast the game of the week, with AT&T Sports or Cox Communications broadcasting non-game of the week matches along with ESPN+.
The Raptors Fan Zone, a tailgate-style party that begins two hours before kickoff, was also full and swinging despite the weather. The first thousand fans through the doors even received a free gift. Those in attendance had to split their time between a number of popular activities: the young and young at heart had their faces painted and got temporary Raptors tattoos, as well as enjoying trying their hand at the rugby toss game. Fans of all ages looked on in wonder at the real birds of prey brought by special guests HawkQuest to further the Raptor-themed activities, interacting with eagles, hawks, and owls at close range. A highlight of their visit was the outstretched and nearly six-foot wingspan of a mature bald eagle, spread gracefully during the National Anthem. A professional photo booth also meant that fans could memorialize the historic day. Boggy Draw Brewery’s tent was a popular stop as well, fans enjoying the local craft suds while washing down empanadas from Lazo Foods and wraps from the California Wrap Runner food truck. With the Raptors official sports performance partner Arcanum on scene to share their unique product line, and DJ RIPM spinning tunes, the excitement for kickoff began to build.
In the opening moments of the match two Raptors players were shaken up, a portent of the hard, aggressive play that would characterize the day. Austin was issued a yellow card 10 minutes in, but the Glendale side was unable to capitalize on the advantage. The Texas side drew first blood, touching down for five points 14 minutes in, and converting to take an early 7-0 lead: the points would prove the only ones Austin would put up in the opening half. Raptors flyhalf Will Magie converted a penalty attempt 21 minutes in to cut into the Austin lead. Plenty of penalties were seen throughout the day, as the two teams felt out their debut on the professional stage. Austin made its own penalty attempt at 30 minutes in, but was unable to convert.
The Fan Zone wasn’t the only place jumping for the Raptors home opener. The team’s VIP area was completely sold out, packed with long time fans, members of the Raptors owners group, and anyone looking for Infinity Park’s royal treatment. The Raptors media room was also full, the season opener for Major League Rugby having attracted local and regional news personnel by the dozens, including long time Denver news anchor and local celebrity Tom Green. The team’s new mascot, Rudi the Raptor, seemed to pop up all over Infinity Park on Saturday: dancing in the stands, giving high fives, patrolling the Fan Zone, and posing for photos. The O’Brien Rugby Shopping Maul was also packed to the rafters, with official Raptors merchandise flying off the shelves and into the waiting arms of excited fans, new and old.
Glendale responded to the intial Austin try in the 32nd minute, with a try of their own by back row Connor Cook – the conversion after by Will Magie seeming to give the Colorado squad new life. Rallying powerfully late in the first half, Raptor back row John Quill found the try zone at 37 minutes, converted again by Will Magie to increase the Glendale lead. Raptors Head Coach David Williams noted that the team seemed to gain momentum as the game progressed: “Once we gained some pressure through multi-phase attack and created opportunities, we did well. We let ourselves down a bit in the first half, giving Austin the ball back in easy territory.” Playing into injury time, veteran Raptors lock Ben Landry touched down for more points in the 41st minute. Magie went into the break perfect on kick attempts, giving the Raptors a 24-7 advantage at the break.
Official Raptors sponsors attended the game en masse, enjoying the atmosphere of the team’s professional debut. Official Credit Union Westerra had representatives on site, encouraging fans to open a Raptors VISA card the next time they stop by a branch, as were ambassadors for the team’s official hotel, Hampton Inn & Suites. Not just in the Fan Zone, Arcanum Sports Performance stayed on to watch the Raptors do battle with Austin as well, informing curious fans about their line of products. One of the team’s newest sponsor partners, historied distiller Tullamore Dew, hosted a tasting station where VIPs could sample their blended Irish whiskey.
The Raptors looked in form entering the second half, with fullback Maximo de Achaval touching down a try four minutes in. Magie converted to put the team up 31-7. Glendale’s Harley Davidson, who plays both winger and fullback, found the try zone again at 47 minutes, and with the successful conversion, further extended the Raptors lead. A minute later, the Raptors would lose Ben Landry for the remainder of the match, as he was red carded for a dangerous tackle. Austin capitalized on the penalty, finding the try zone at 52 minutes and converting to cut into the Glendale lead. The Texas team would put more points up at 59 minutes, converting to bring the match within striking distance.
A missed penalty kick by Will Magie in the 64th minute kept things even, and a flurry of penalties in the minutes that followed saw Austin again knocking on the door. The rough and tumble match again came to a head 72 minutes in, when Raptor Connor Cook was red carded for a tackle the ref deemed too dangerous. A yellow card on Raptor prop Kelepi Fifita just two minutes later would further Austin’s numbers advantage, meaning the Glendale side would finish the match three men down. Austin touched down for five in the 75th minute, but missed the conversion, bringing the score to 38-26 in Glendale’s favor. With time quickly running out, the Raptors secured victory off the foot of Will Magie. Burning precious seconds, Magie converted a penalty attempt to push the Raptors advantage to 41-26 in the 80th minute, sealing the team’s first professional win. Raptors Assistant Coach Ted Browner was happy with the victory: “It was great to get the win. Austin brought the physicality and that was a great wake up call for us. We’re all excited about the remaining season.”
Raptors Head Coach David Williams was also glad to secure the early season win, though acknowledged that conditions were not ideal: “Weather was an issue and both teams had to play to the conditions,” he said. “Once we stuck to our game plan and forced Austin to kick the ball back to us, we gained some momentum and turned it into points.” John Quill was named Man of the Match, the veteran back row man looking composed in his first professional Major League Rugby match. A long-time Raptor, Quill holds 25 USA Eagles caps. The Raptors second game of the regular season will see the team on the road, traveling to Seattle to take on the Seawolves in a sold out Starfire Stadium on April 28 at 8:30pm Mountain Time. The match will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.
Throughout the inaugural MLR season, CBSSN will broadcast the game of the week, with AT&T Sports or Cox Communications broadcasting non-game of the week matches along with ESPN+. Check out the complete regular season schedule, and purchase tickets to the rest of the home matches at Infinity Park.