Maybe a silver lining in Seawolves’ poor 2020 start

The Seattle Seawolves, who were champions in the first two years of Major League Rugby, started the 2020 season with a losing record of 1-4 before the coronavirus ended play.

Hardly a good thing until MLR announced that the team selections in its first college draft would be based on the finish of the interrupted 2020 season. That puts the Seawolves picking fifth and 17th. If the order had been based on the 2018 and 2019 championship seasons, the Seawolves would have picked 12th and 24th in the draft’s two rounds.

“We get to keep the championship shield and pick fifth,” said Shane Skinner, owner of the Seattle rugby team.

He would not reveal whom they might pick or what position they were most interested in. But he said that being in the first five picks would assure them of getting a quality player out of the more than 400 players who have signed up for the draft.

“We’ve been doing a ton of research, talking to coaches and players who have played with these players,” Skinner said, “We feel our picks are within fulfilling our needs.”

Teams in Dallas and Los Angeles, who are joining the league for the 2021 season, were selected to pick first, but Los Angeles traded away their No. 2 spot to New Orleans. Houston has also traded away their two spots in the draft to Utah, who will have four picks. There could be more trades before the draft starts Saturday at 4 p.m. PDT on the league’s Facebook page.

The Toronto Arrows are not participating in the draft, depending on their own efforts to develop Canadian player. According to the MLR, “The Arrows decided to opt out of the 2020 Draft because of the strength of their own programs and the complications around collegiate athletes acquiring international visas to go to or come from Canada, especially during the current COVID-19 restrictions.”

Two players with Washington state connections are featured on the MLR website. Cole Zarcone, 23, from Camas, WA, played at Central Washington University, and Tommy Hunkin-Clark, 23, from Olympia, WA, played at American International College in Springfield, MA.

Any Seawolves interest in keeping them here?

“If I said anything about what our picks might be, the other teams would try to make sure that didn’t happen,” Skinner said.

 

A Seawolves win without me

Thanks to Ben Cima, Peter Tiberio, Siti Tamaivena, Nakai Penny and the rest of the hard charging Seawolves, I can no longer credit my not being at the game for why they won. That means I can go back for the rest of the games at Starfire this season. Thanks to the rugby gods.

Missed last night to honor a theater date made with friends some time ago. Won’t happen again. Also added Tribe app to my phone, which kept me updated, sort of. I did not sneak a look during the play. A nice reward when the curtain fell.

Ian, my source inside the stadium, sitting in my seats, said the “team looked like last year. Exciting open running. Fly half back and played great. Did not miss a kick.”

I would have been worried when the Seawolves were down 0-14, but Ian says, “They had more possession in the attacking half.”

Coming back for a 44-29 win after being down two tries and conversions shows a nice bit of character. Gotta like that.

My predictions for this weekend as a 2-2 split between the East and West Divisions were right on. Should have bet it instead of Kentucky Derby prep race, the Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream, where my horse came in fourth:

San Diego over New Orleans: Yes, SD 25-21. West wins

Old Glory over Austin: Yes, DC 28-19. East wins

Seattle over New England: Yes, Seawolves 44-29. West wins

New York over Houston: Yes, RUNY 31-23. East wins

A happy and an unhappy thought after watching the New York-Houston game Sunday afternoon. Happy that New York made the last minute try to win by more than seven points. Houston would have gained a bonus point before that, leaving them tied with Seattle for third place in the West.

Unhappy that Houston’s Stadium, a rugby only facility with no lines on the field except those devoted to rugby, had many, many empty seats. Didn’t look to me like there was a row of seats with all of them filled. Obviously the owners there are committed to rugby and the Sabercats, but some work on attendance needs to be done.

Utah is one point ahead of the Seawolves in the West Division. A Seattle win against Utah on Saturday would put the Seawolves in second place, which, if this were May 31, would mean playoffs.

March 7, 6 p.m. at Starfire – I’ll be there.

Now let me tell you about the play . . . R. Hamilton Wright is no longer braying like he used to. He’s mellowed out some and fit well as a character whose mistress shows up at his house to chat with his wife before asking if these two retired scientists at a failed and leaking nuke plant would agree to risk their lives to . . .

 

 

What’s wrong with MLR’s Western Division?

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.

What’s wrong with the Seawolves?

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?

Possible answers:

  1. Injuries. Lots of them, which have kept most of the team’s overseas signings off the field.
    Ross Neal
    Ross Neal

    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!).

    Harry Davies
    Harry Davies

    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.

 

Cima
Ben Cima kicking

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.

  1. 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.
    Front rows
    Front row props Tim Metcher, Djustice Sear-Duru and Jake Ilnicki
    Front row 2
    Prop Kellen Gordon

    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
Phil Mack

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.

  1. 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).

What could go wrong?

 

 

Rugby World Cup ends, back to normal sleep patterns

First hopes were on the United States Eagles. Just win a game, maybe get beyond pool place in the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan. A hopeless cause, and unfulfilled.

Then I turned to Ireland. They could win the whole thing, until they could not. Then Wales, another hopeless cause when South Africa destroyed them.

Lastly, I turned to England, who played so well eliminating New Zealand from the finals.

That hope died this morning when South Africa took the championship by overpowering England’s scrums, containing their running game and out-kicking them in penalties. The score was 18-12 at one point, all on penalty kicks, which makes a boring game. Then at 66 minutes into the game, the Springboks opened up scoring with two tries before the game ended, 32-12.

A more interesting game was Friday morning when New Zealand clobbered Wales 40-17 to take third place. One of the announcer said of Wales’ desperate effort to get back in the game, “it’s not tidy, not pretty, but there is a certain freedom in that kind of rugby” — throwing the ball around recklessly like kids on a playground playing keep-away. That’s what keeps me glued to this form of football.

No more 2 a.m. start times for rugby games, at least not until 2023 when the Rugby World Cup moves to France. Or, we could be in that time zone, just down the road a piece to queue up to get into the stadium. Maybe not a hopeless cause.

Down they fell: Ireland, Wales and now what?

Ireland looked like a contender in the 2019 Rugby World Cup, but they fell to Japan and then New Zealand.

I thought Wales could become a winner that had never taken home the Webb Ellis trophy before, but they lost to South Africa, 19-16, this morning. The Springboks head for the finals next Saturday, while Wales plays for bronze against New Zealand, who were stopped by England in their attempt to win the RWC for a third time in a row.

Both England and South Africa have captured the RWC championship before, but I’m probably going to root for England, who played an excellent game against New Zealand and did so poorly in the 2015 RWC when they became the first host nation that never advanced beyond pool play. Winning the World Cup might help English fans get over that lingering malady.

Wales and South Africa kicked and kicked, the kind of game a former teammate calls “Ping-Pong.” Back and forth when running seemed a good option. Even the scoring was mostly from penalty kicks with the game tied 9-9 on penalties until the 44th minute when the Springboks scored a try and conversion. Wales answered with seven points 10 minutes later, and the 16-16 tie held up until the last five minutes of the game when South Africa kicked another penalty for the 19-16 win.

So I’ll be singing “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” which the English fans sing in the stands, which does seem an odd choice. but so did “Bread of Heaven.”

 

England in the finals; rooting for a matchup with Wales

“England started well and never gave us a chance to get into the game,” said New Zealand’s captain Keiran Read in a good summary of their 19-7 loss to the English side.

Manu Tuilagi scored 1:37 minutes into the match and George Ford added four penalty kicks. England had two tries called back because of infractions, one for obstruction and one for a call rarely seen: a ball slipped forward in a maul.

England’s defense kept the New Zealand running game bottled up, and we saw more missed passes and penalties from the Kiwis than we have seen in the 2019 Rugby World Cup. Their only try came on a poorly thrown or lack of communication on where to ball was supposed to end up in an England lineout. It ended in the hands of a New Zealand player who went untouched five yards for the score.

It’s the first RWC game the All Blacks have lost since 2007, and they will not three-peat.

Tonight’s game — make that 2 a.m. tomorrow in Seattle — could bring a non-RWC winner into the finals if Wales can get by South Africa. Then beat England in the finals, and the Welsh will win their first RWC championship. A tall order, but we’re still singing “Bread of Heaven.”

This week, I will be a Welshman singing “Bread of Heaven”

The suspects have stepped forward to the lineup, and they are the usual suspects: England will play New Zealand, and Wales will take on South Africa in the semifinals of the 2019 Rugby World Cup.

Probably the best bet for beating New Zealand comes from England, who did away with Australia, 40-16, as Saturday started here in Seattle. Owen Farrell scored 20 of those points: kicking four conversions and three penalties. Jonny May had two tries, and the ref and the two teams’ front rows could never get together on how to keep set scrums from collapsing.

I struggled to get the iPad working at 3 a.m. to watch New Zealand against Ireland. By the time I got NBC Sports Gold running, the All Blacks were up 17-0. The Kiwis were mechanical, perfect and almost boring in how predictable they were in beating Ireland, 46-14. New Zealand may be headed for a three-repeat, winning the RWC in 2015 and 2011.

Of the four teams headed to the semis, Wales is the only one that has never won a World Cup. So I will be Welsh this week, hoping against all hopes that Wales can beat South Africa and then either NZ or England in the finals on Nov. 2. That’s betting on a doubtful outcome, like my handicapping for horse racing. But maybe . . .

Wales beat France, 20-19, after the Frenchmen showed how to link up backs and forwards in a fast running game. The turning point came when six-foot-eight Sébastien Vahaamahina got a red card for foul play. And foul it was. First he had Wales’ Aaron Wainwright in a headlock in the maul, dropped that and then elbowed Wainwright in the face. That will teach him for scoring Wales’ only try up to that point. Then it took Wales most of the second half to come up with another score against a team playing a man short. Wales goes on with a 20-19 win over France.

In their game against South Africa, Japan never got their thrilling running game going that they displayed so well against Scotland in the final game of pool play. They scored a penalty kick and held South Africa to 5-3 in the first half. And that was that, losing 26-3.

So if you hear me singing, it will be the song the “Bread of Heaven,” the song the Welsh fans sing in the stands as they are headed to victory and their first Rugby World Cup championship.

 

 

 

USA remains “team of the future” forever

Baboon on rock

In my last post, I had some of the numbers wrong (since fixed) but not the conclusion: Japan goes to the quarterfinals if the Scotland game is played and they win. They did, 28-21.

Scotland opened the scoring with their fly half running through Japan’s defense and it looked like the usual suspects would end up emerging from pool play. But then Japan put on a wonderful show of offloading the ball to open runners, going into half with a 21-7 lead. They added another try and conversion early in the second half before Scotland found its footing and scored two more tries and conversions. Japan held on for the win.

Speaking of mistakes, the USA Eagles made plenty last night in their loss to the Tonga “Ikale Tahi” (Sea Eagles), losing 31-19. The United States led at half 12-7, but fumbled away the ball on offense and could not stop Tonga’s well supported running. Nice to see Seattle’s own Olive Kilifi starting some of the USA’s scoring.

So the USA Eagles, often referred to as the team that will someday become one of the usual suspects in the post-pool play World Cup, didn’t win any of their four games. They were in the “Pool of Death” against England, France, Argentina and Tonga. I thought they had a chance against Argentina and Tonga. Not so. Maybe in four more years. Or maybe forever.

I found another baboon photo to post. It seemed appropriate as I am correcting a mistake I made yesterday, only one of two mistakes I think I have corrected in four years of this blog. I try to be transparent here, letting all hang out, as this baboon is doing.

Missed 20 rugby games to hang out with baboons

Baboon and baby

I missed watching 20 games in the 2019 Rugby World Cup to hang out with a bunch of baboons.

I thought I could watch the games on an iPad while on a 12-day trip to Kenya and Tanzania, but that did not happen. For one thing, NBC Sports Gold streaming service that I paid for is not available outside the United States. Should have read the fine print. Actually it’s in big type under the FAQ, but what male asks for directions or reads the instructions. Another problem was that my international calling plan from AT&T doesn’t cover Kenya and Tanzania. Then there was the spotty wifi coverage in game camps where we stayed. Missed hearing from friends and family, but a nice break from wars, presidential high crimes and misdemeanors and other worldly troubles as we spend our time watching “slavering animals and colorful natives” as Paul Theroux says in “Dark Star Safari.”

Well, sorry Mr. Theroux, but we enjoyed it probably more than you did in your endless bus ride across Africa.

This blog’s future posts will try to introduce those animals, slavering or not, as I edit almost a thousand pictures and videos. Lions, no tigers or bears, but lots of wildebeest, leopards, zebras, cheetahs and birds will come knocking at your door as one baboon did at the Ol Tukai Lodge in Amboseli National Park in Kenya. Kathy and I were dressing in the morning when the door suddenly swung open, and there, standing on his two hind legs with his forearms stretched in front of him, was our friendly baboon wake-up call. He stared, we stared and Ian, one of our traveling companions, said from outside, “You should lock your door.” A few yells and Mr. Baboon went away but returned later to peek in the window and eat a small snake just to the side of our porch.

Baboon in window

Speaking of simian behavior, let me tell you about some of it that appeared at the Rugby World Cup before we disappeared into East Africa. The last newspaper we read in the Amsterdam airport was the Sept. 28 edition of The Times of London (lovely to have a paper that covers your favorite sport). Alex Lowe, the Deputy Rugby Correspondent, wrote about the disconnect between World Rugby’s “promised clampdown on dangerous tackles” and the referees and players on the field. In the first week of RWC play, four potential red cards were missed by the referees. Two Samoans got three-game bans for dangerous tackles in their 34-9 win over Russia. But the suspensions came after the game ended when the governing body and judicial hearings used 28 camera angles and Hawk-Eye technology (whatever that is) to spot the offenses missed by the single referee and his two assistant refs (touch judges, as we used to call them).

Reece Hodge, an Australian player, also received a post-game “red card” for a tackle that left a Fiji player concussed. In his hearing that led to his three-game suspension, Hodge “admitted to having no knowledge of the interpretation of rules on high tackles and had not been given any training on it,” according a an article by Steve James in The Times. That seems to have left the Australian coach fuming. Michael Cheika said he coached his players to tackle around the waist and “we do not need a framework to tell them how to tackle.” That framework, he said, is for referees “to decide whether there is a red or yellow cards in a game.”

That did not work in the England-United States game where Piers Francis was charged with foul play after concussing Will Hooley, a USA back. For Francis there was no yellow or red card or even a penalty in the game. The charge came later, and as Ian points out, getting 10 minutes in the sin bin (yellow card) or ejected from the game (red card) forcing your team to play a man short, could have an effect on the game if referees called them. Given that the United States was beaten 45-7, England might have won with10 men. But in another game? Could make a big difference.

Also in the news of Sept. 28: Wales was trying to figure a way to beat Australia (they did), and Ireland’s coach Joe Schmidt said he “hoped to put more width on the ball” in the their game against Japan, according to an article by Peter O’Reilly. I take that to mean get the ball out to the backs more. It didn’t work. Remember when I said Ireland beating Scotland didn’t prove much about their strength? Losing 19-12 against Japan probably says more. Still hoping for the Irish side to take the tournament, but I’m not laying any green on that pick.

Emerging from Africa and reading the Oct. 10 edition of The Times of London in the Amsterdam airport, we find that Japan and the Rugby World Cup there are battened down as Typhoon Hagibis sweeps over them. So far, there are two people dead and nine missing from the storm.

Three RWC games have been canceled – England vs. France, New Zealand vs. Italy and Namibia vs. Canada. Each of these teams will get two points, as in a tie, in the pool standings. England and France are both going into the quarterfinals and the game would have sorted out seeding. Now England goes as top seed, and France as the runner-up. Italy was going nowhere in a disappointing RWC appearance, and New Zealand will go out as top seed. It would have been nice if Canada or Namibia could get a win in the tournament, but they will have to wait another four years.

Scotland vs. Japan is where it will make a difference. If that Sunday game (starting at 3:30 a.m. in Seattle) is canceled, Scotland will lose its chance to advance out of pool play. Ireland, beating Samoa 47-5, moved into top spot in Pool A. Japan, with 14 points, is second and Scotland with 10 points is third. No game, and Japan ends with 15 points and Scotland with 12. Japan goes on as Pool A runner up, and Scotland goes home.

This, according to Owen Slot, Times Chief Rugby Correspondent, would “discredit the entire event.”

“This is the very stuff of which World Cups are made; it is two teams fighting for survival. To dispatch Scotland from the tournament because of Typhoon Hagibis would make a farce of the event.”

Probably not if players, refs and fans got carried away by flooding rivers, but let’s talk important stuff here: Scotland got screwed in the 2015 by a bad call in their quarterfinal game. The RWC should do all to give them a chance in 2019, even though I am hoping for Japan to go forward as a team outside the usual suspects: South Africa and New Zealand in Pool B; England and France in Pool C; Wales and Australia in Pool D; and Ireland in Pool A.

So far, the United States vs. Tonga game is still on (10:45 tonight). Another rugby all-nighter coming up. And tomorrow, I will sleep like a baboon, as one of the African guides said last week.

Coming up: Rhinos and USA Eagles and “Ikale Tahi” (Sea Eagles).