Major League Rugby’s Eastern Division, with three new teams this year, makes you wonder what happened to the Western Division.
The six teams out here on the Left Coast and points inland have been in the league since it started in 2018. Yet the division has three teams with no wins, Austin, Colorado and yes, the Seattle Seawolves. All of the teams in the Eastern Division have won at least one game, including the newbies: Washington, D.C. Old Glory, New England Free Jacks and the Atlanta Rugby ATLs (gotta be a better name than that).
And in matches between the two divisions, the East has won eight of 10. The only Western wins came against the New England team, Utah on Feb. 15 and San Diego on Feb. 23.
Otherwise, it’s a stuck record: Atlanta over Utah, Toronto over Austin, New York over Austin, Toronto over Houston, Washington, D.C. over Seattle, New Orleans (the only East team that is in its third year) over Colorado, Washington, D.C. over Houston and Toronto over Seattle.
There are four East-West matches the weekend of Feb. 29 and March 1: San Diego at New Orleans, Washington, D.C. at Austin, New York at Houston, and yes, New England at Seattle.
So far, New England has been a punching bag for the Western Division, but their only win came against Rugby United New York, a team that ended up in the playoffs last year and on Feb. 21 signed Hanco Germishuys, a U.S. Eagle back rower who played for Colorado the past two years. And don’t forget Mathieu Bastareaud, a 285-pound center, come over from France. Free Jacks blew away Austin and squeaked out a win against Atlanta, 22-19.
Not a pushover for the Seawolves on Sadie Hawkins Day this Saturday, Feb. 29. Reading the Free Jacks’ account of their game against San Diego – which was interrupted on my TV by people driving cars in a circle and announcers with Southern accents – is mostly about mistakes, a comeback and further mistakes for a 30-21 defeat. Their roster is loaded with players from Japan, Fiji, New Zealand and Australia.
My bet on East-West rivalry this coming weekend: a 2-2 split with San Diego over New Orleans, Old Glory over Austin, New York over Houston and Seattle over New England. Don’t make me wrong.
So if you had a newspaper covering the Seattle Seawolves instead devoting space to a bunch of second stringers playing slow football or a hockey team that isn’t here yet, a beat reporter would be asking the question, “What’s wrong with the Seawolves?”
The two-time champions have started the year with a 0-3 record, and the home opener Saturday, Feb. 22, a 39-17 drubbing by the Toronto Arrows, has diminished our hopes here that the Seattle team can make the playoffs, still months away.
But before we get there, someone has to answer the question: What’s wrong with the Seawolves?
Injuries. Lots of them, which have kept most of the team’s overseas signings off the field.
Ross Neal from England has a broken hand. Harry Davies from Wales is hobbling around in a walking cast after surgery to his foot. I asked him if he came here for USA healthcare, and he said, “No, it was better from where I came.” (It’s Trump’s fault!).
Ryno Eksteen has been out from the beginning with a cut foot. David Busby from Ireland played last night, but there was no sign of FP Pelser, another South African.
And then there is Ben Cima, on a concussion protocol after a nasty collision in the Tasman Mako game on Jan. 26. Scott Dean came in for Cima at stand off and kicked his way to glory and a win. He started there in the first two games in the regular season, both defeats. So the coaches tried Shalom Suniula there last night. He’s a better inside center where he has more time to distribute the ball and set up plays. And Jeff Hassler is a better wing than he is a center. But nice to see him back on the field after recovering from his injury. Also good to see Stephan Coetzee back out there.
What’s missing? Besides Cima, who isn’t there this year who was there last year? Olive Kilifi? The USA Eagle prop is now an assistant coach with the Seattle Saracens, the amateur club in town. (And he reminds us that the Saracens play Glendate, CO, Merlins on Feb. 28, Friday at 7 p.m. at Starfire Stadium). Kilifi was injured much of last year, and as another prop on the Seawolves pointed out, they still won games.
And putting Tendai Mtawarira on the Team of the Week after the Seawolves-Old Glory game was an insult to the Seawolves front row who pushed, lifted and dominated the set scrums against Washington on Feb. 16. Bring up No. 2, Mr. Producer, and let’s see the Old Glory front row pedaling with their feet off the ground.
Apisai Naikatini? Api always gave the team at least a strong half. That allowed Brad Tucker to play wing forward (who says he likes playing second row and wing forward, finding challenges in both positions). Tucker, Riekert Hattingh and Nakai Penny at back row with Vili Toluta’u and Eric Duechle coming in as reserves. No drop off in talent there.
Phil Mack? He has been the coaching steadfast since day one, leading the team as player-head coach after last-minute call-up the first year and then as player-assistant coach last year. Now he’s the full-time assistant coach. Time to get back on the field? He’s a steady influence there, and he could play scrumhalf with JP Smith at No. 10 until Cima reappears.
Culture. The team talks about that a lot, from owners, coaches and players. Ask Toluta’u about bringing new players into the fold, and he will talk about “getting them into our culture.” Second paragraph in the team’s media press kit defines that as:
“The organization strives to develop, cultivate and expand the sport of rugby in the US while empowering discipline, duty, respect and the spirit of inclusion both on and off the pitch. The Seattle Seawolves aim to foster a winning culture by enabling its members to meet their true potential while pursuing excellence in the MLR competition. Community outreach is a key tenet (not “tenant,” Rebecca and Kate!) of the Seawolves’ philosophy, and the organization strives to continually help enrich and give back to the greater Seattle area and the Pacific Northwest.”
Mack seems to bring that onto the field. He probably would not say much, but meeting his eyes when a player was not meeting “their true potential while pursuing excellence” would not be a pretty sight.
And no one connected to the Seawolves ever talked more about culture than Kevin Flynn, who served last year as team manager. Now he continues that with the Seattle Saracens where he has been president for many years. Is there some one with the Seawolves who can get them re-connected to the culture where they do community outreach, help enrich us and start playing together?
Getting everything right is going to take some time, but time they have. The Seawolves can come in third in their division over Utah, Austin and Colorado. They beat Houston, the second place team in the Western branch of the league, in the playoffs. Hand San Diego, the first place team, their second defeat against the Seawolves this year and then go on to meet the winner of the Eastern Division (which is looking very strong these days).