Both Teams Leave Pitch With Heads High: Future Of American Rugby Brighter Than Ever
By John Arthur
The Glendale Raptors and Seattle Seawolves traveled to San Diego this weekend, kicking off in Torero Stadium to battle for top honors in the league’s first Championship match. Coming in as the number one and number two ranked teams, respectively, the showdown featured the nation’s top rugby talent.
Things got underway just after 7pm Mountain Time, under partly cloudy skies and mild seaside temperatures. The early minutes of the match were determined by a mixture of defense and attempts by both teams to size one another up for the third time this year. A penalty against the Raptors in the ninth minute lead to a Seawolves kick attempt and conversion, putting the Seattle side up 3-0. Displaying patience following the early deficit, the Raptors used field position gained from a Seattle penalty to drive a post line out maul into the try zone. Zach Fenoglio dotted down at 13 minutes, and Magie’s successful conversion gave Glendale a 7-3 lead.
Though both teams played aggressively following the Raptors’ score, with players on both sides making certain their on-field counterparts knew what was on the line, neither was able to make much of their effort. A penalty against Raptor Sam Figg at 18 minutes gave Seattle another shot at the posts, but the penalty kick wasn’t converted, leaving the score unchanged. A series of additional Raptor penalties ultimately saw Seattle dot down 23 minutes in, Ray Barkwill finding the try zone. The Seawolves unable to convert, the team took back a narrow 8-7 lead.
Already aggressive, the game became chippy entering the second quarter of play. Moving through their phases, the Glendale side repeatedly ended up in the scrum, though not before a bit of extracurricular activity from John Quill made known to the Seattle forwards that the Raptors would tolerate no nonsense from their opponents. Seattle’s Matt Turner found the try zone at 28 minutes, but the score was called back for a clear obstruction during the line break on Raptor Peter Dahl. The Raptors would have the same fate moments later, as Harley Davidson apparently touched down on a play called back for a knock on. The back and forth continued to close the half, the Seawolves entering the break maintaining their one-point advantage.
Both teams looked a bit cooler coming off the bench to start the second half, each struggling to piece together phases and continuing to look evenly matched in the final 40 minutes of MLR’s debut season. With great emotion from both squads bleeding onto the pitch, the Glendale side saw themselves knocking on the Seattle door early. A succession of penalties and line outs saw the Raptors drive forward in Seawolves’ territory, ultimately muscling into the try zone at 50 minutes in. Unable to convert, the Raptors retook the lead, 12-8.
Seattle’s offense looked sharper following the try, but the Raptors would not surrender points quietly. Entering the 22-meter mark, the Seawolves lost the ball, and through an incredible team effort of passes and kicks, Glendale’s Bryce Campbell ultimately dotted down. Conversion successful, the Raptors extended their lead to 19-8. Following the try a second penalty on Raptor Sam Figg, this time for a high tackle, gave the Seawolves excellent position, and the Seattle team dotted down within seconds. Characteristic of the final match, the score was arguably questionable, but the officiating staff did not overturn the ruling. Conversion attempt failed, Seattle cut into the Raptors’ lead, moving the scoreboard to 13-19. A huge run in the 61st minute would see the Seawolves much more convincingly touching down, the successful conversion giving them the lead once again, 20-18 ahead of Glendale.
An offside call on the Raptors 2 minutes later would see that lead extended off the boot of Seattle’s Pete Smith, edging the Seawolves further ahead, 23-19. The final 17 minutes of the match would be fought as hard as the first, but the score would not change. The Seattle defense, dubbed by fans the “Sea Wall,” made offensive momentum for the Raptors difficult throughout the evening. Ball handling mistakes, penalties, and, finally, not enough time remaining cost the Raptors MLR’s first championship. The Seawolves maintained possession in the closing moments and walked off the pitch victorious.
Deservedly jubilant upon receiving the inaugural MLR Championship Shield, the Seawolves chanted and celebrated, but also congratulated their rugby companions from Colorado. In spite of falling in the final, the Raptors mounted an exceptionally impressive inaugural season. Congratulations are warranted for both teams, and the competition at the Major League Rugby Championship was certainly of the highest caliber – a testament to the bright future of the game in this nation.
Major League Rugby’s first season complete, the sport has gained far more than a foothold in North America. With Rugby United New York already signed as a 2019 expansion, and additional teams across the continent expressing growing interest, the undertaking shows no signs of slowing. Newcomers will find stiff competition in Seattle and Glendale alike. MLR has at last awakened America’s sleeping rugby giant, and the gold rush for the sport’s last promised land is finally on in earnest.