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?

 

 

This is why I get so excited about rugby

Andrew Shaffer, a huge Seattle Seawolves fan, put together this video clip of the first two seasons of the professional rugby team here in the Pacific Northwest and posted it on Facebook.
If you ever wondered why I get so excited about the game of rugby, have a look.
Seawolves play a preseason game Sunday, Jan. 26, 2020, at 7:30 p.m. at Starfire Stadium in Tukwila.
Regular season starts Feb. 9 with the Seattle team in San Diego, the team they beat to win the championship last year. Game will be on CBS Sports network. Then on to Washington, D.C., Sunday, Feb. 16, to play a newcomer to Major League Rugby, Old Glory DC. That game is on Roots TV here in Seattle.
First home game is Saturday, Feb. 22, 2020, 7:30 p.m. at Starfire Stadium. It will be shown on CBS Sports network.
And as every retired player says, “Wish I could still play,” but I’ll be in the stadium having a grand time.

New Seawolves faces, same results — a win

Lost

Lost 2
What it looks like when the lineout is lost: Ball overthrown and the Houston, in yellow, take it.

Some new names in the Seattle Seawolves professional rugby team’s starting lineup Sunday night, but the same results – another win.

This one against the Houston Sabercats, 27-14. at Starfire Stadium in Tukwila, WA.

Scoring in the first half was limited to a penalty kick by Seawolves’ Brock Staller, and a try by Houston after they stole a Seattle lineout, won a scrum, scurried the ball out to the backs and Osea Kolinisan scored in the corner. Sam Windsor uncharacteristically missed the conversion kick but added a penalty later after Seattle failed to release a tackled player. The half ended 3-8 with Houston ahead.

Seattle stayed on the Houston side of the field in the first half but found every way in rugby to loose the ball, the momentum and scoring opportunities – offside penalties, lost lineouts, knock-ons, ball not thrown in straight in the lineout and giving up the ball in their own loose rucks.

A long run by Eric Duechle looked like it might overcome the scattered play as he broke through several tackles and flopped into the try zone, slamming the ball behind him. Looked like a try, but the referee called it a dribble – didn’t touch the ball down to score – and a Houston player picked up the ball and ran it out of trouble.

With six minutes gone in the second half, the Seawolves took the lead again on a maul off their own lineout when Jeremy Lenaerts touched down for five points. Staller converted for two more.

Then it looked like the kicks by Staller and Windsor would decide the game. Windsor slotted a penalty kick after Seattle was offside to lead 10-11. Minutes later, Staller put up three more points after Houston was offside – 13-11. Staller had two more penalty attempts but missed them.

After a Seattle player entered the loose ruck from the side, Windsor connected to put Houston up, 13-14.

And that was it for Houston as the Seawolves took over the last 10 minutes of the game. The forwards pushed the ball down to just short of the Houston try line before getting the ball out, spotting one well aimed pass and Sequoyah Burke-Combs got the ball down just inside the out-of-bounds pylon. Staller kicked the conversion from the corner.

Duechle made up for that dribble earlier, running beneath an up-and-under kick, gathering in a deflected catch and holding off tacklers before touching down. Staller’s kick was good for a 27-14 win.

Houston has only won one game, but for Seattle it has to feel good to win without some of their regular players. Phil Mack played for Canada Friday night against the USA national team at Starfire. J.P. Smith filled in well for him at scrum half. Kellen Gordon, Dan Trierweiler and John Hayden spelled Stephan Coetzee and Tim Metcher. Oli Kilifi, who had played Friday night for the USA Eagles, sat out until well into the second half. Ben Cima and Peter Tiberio shuffled the stand-off and fullback positions for missing Matt Turner, the usual fullback.

With four wins and two losses and 20 table points, the Seawolves are right behind the New Orleans Gold, who have only played five games to collect 21 points. Right behind Seattle is the Glendale, Colo., team with 20 table points and a 3-2-1 record.

The Seawolves are back at Starfire Stadium on March 31 against the San Diego Legion, who saw the Toronto Arrows score 24 points in the second half Sunday night to win 27-20.

Next Saturday, Seattle is at Austin, who have yet to win a game this season. The game will be on ROOTS-TV. Seawolves have a bye on the weekend of March 23-24.

Won

Won 2.jpg
When the lineout is won: Ball straight to jumper, then on to the scrum half.

Why aren’t U.S. national rugby games on TV?

The Friday night game between the United States and Canada’s national rugby teams had eight lead changes and four times during the match when the opponents were separated by one point before the U.S. Eagles ran in a last minute try to win 30-25.

It was, as a first-time rugby viewer said afterwards, a “great match.”

Which leads to this question: Right now I can go out in the TV room and watch Scotland host Wales; Italy versus England is next and the Vancouver Sevens prelims will be on later this afternoon. Six Nations coverage continues tomorrow with France at Ireland and the Major League Rugby is on with San Diego at Toronto and then Houston at Seattle’s home team, the Seawolves, at Starfire Stadium in Tukwila, another sellout.

So why wasn’t the great match between the U.S. Eagles and the Canadians on TV, cable or otherwise where I don’t have to pay premium boxing/wrestling/martial arts fees to watch? At least having it on TV would get it into the local newspaper’s TV listing to show that an international match is happening right here in River City.

Wasn’t ignored on KING-TV, who did a great article on the two Seattle Seawolves who played in last night’s game at Starfire:

https://www.king5.com/article/sports/seawolves-teammates-on-opposing-sides-of-championship-game/281-8dacf189-b5e1-4660-9638-c42af8a76b36

The Eagles have three more games over the summer in the Pacific Nation Cup before they head into the Rugby World Cup in Japan in September. Will those games be on TV?

 

Seattle Seawolves hand New York its first loss

DSC_3688
Seattle Seawolves defense: Two on one and two more coming soon. George Barton tackling above and Shalom Suniula hangling onto a foot.

The Seattle Seawolves combined strong defense, speedy back play and accurate kicking to hand Rugby United New York its first defeat of the season, 33-21.

All scoring came from tries and conversions with no penalty kicks attempted in the game. The Seawolves scored five tries with Brock Staller converting all but one when his kick bounced off the left post. That may have been the only thing he did wrong all night.

He scored two of the Seawolves five tries including a 75-yard run after picking up an errant New York pass.

The Seawolves win scrambles the Major League Rugby standings with San Diego and New Orleans, the two teams New York has beaten, on top of the standings, and Seawolves coming in third behind the two teams they have lost to.

Eric Duechle started the scoring for Seattle, taking a pass off loose play and touching down in the corner seven minutes into the game that had been dominated by the Seawolves forwards.

Four minutes later, New York set up a dazzling double scissors that left Will Leonard scoring under the post. Cathal Marsh converted his first of three conversions.

New York took the lead seven minutes later when Ross Deacon scored from five yards out after peeling off a set scrum.

Seattle continued winning the ball, pushed to New York’s try line where Tim Metcher put one down for five more points. Then Apisai Naikatini pushed the ball back in a loose ruck, but scrum half Phil Mack’s pass to standoff Ben Cima bounced by him. But Shalom Suniula was there to pick it up and cut behind the loose. New York scrambled, but Suniula stretched out a hand to make the try.

Staller ran for his 75-yard try and the missed conversion one minute before the half ended, 26-14.

In the second half, the Seawolves either had the ball in hand or were putting steady pressure on New York. A well placed cross kick by Cima found winger Staller racing down the sideline to gather up the ball and score one more time.

New York finally broke through the Seawolves defense with 12 minutes left in the game and Mike Brown going in for the try.

The Seawolves forwards were dominant in loose play and in the set formations, with the reserves coming in as strong and well settled as those they replaced. Better control in the lineouts for the Seattle team with extra high lifting of the jumpers. Backs seemed peppier in this match with many exciting breakaways.

New York, now 2-1 in the league, head to Texas next week where they should have no trouble. Whatever happened to rugby in Texas? Between Houston and Austin, the Texas teams, have one win in eight tries.

The Seawolves are off the first weekend in March, but there will be plenty of rugby at Starfire Stadium in Tukwila as the United States national team will take on the Uruguay team on Saturday, March 2, at 7 p.m. Why isn’t that on TV?

On Friday night, March 8, at 7 p.m., Brock Staller, a Canadian national player, will be lining up with Canada in Starfire against the U.S. Eagles, which could include several Seattle Seawolves. Should be good, and why isn’t that game on TV?

Seawolves return to Starfire on March 10 against the Houston Sabercats, who have that one win in Texas.

DSC_3685
Ben Cima’s kicks got Seawolves out of trouble or set up scoring.

Ex Seattle Seawolves coach sues MLR champs for pay

Tony Healy, the former coach for the Seattle Seawolves rugby team, has filed suit to recover pay, damages and attorney fees and costs from the new champions of Major League Rugby.

Download suit here: Healy suit

Healy alleged in his suit, filed at King County Superior Court on June 28, 2018, that he was hired in September 2017 as head coach of the Seawolves.

Negotiating with Adrian Balfour, the chief operating officer of the Seattle Rugby Club, Healy said he was to be paid $43,000 from January 1, 2018, to June 30, 2018. After that the contract was to be automatically renewed for six months until either party gave two-months notice of ending it.

Healy, 48, played rugby himself, representing Canada 15 times and playing professionally in France and England. He has been a coach for 14 years and in 2017 led the British Columbia team to the Canadian national championship.

Healy, who lives in Victoria, B.C., said Balfour told him that his immigration status would be dealt with and he would be given a worker visa to cover his employment.

Balfour said July 24, 2018, there was no basis for the suit.

“He never worked for the Seawolves,” Balfour said. “We tried twice to get him a visa but were turned down both times by the INS.”

The Immigration and Naturalization Service, according to Balfour, said that Healy’s time as a coach in an amateur competition did not make him a professional coach.

“We would have been up for him as our coach, but the INS said no.

“It’s black and white,” he said. “We’ll let the facts play out, but it’s up to Tony now.”

Healy quit his job at the end of 2017, made six trips to Seattle to select players, build a training routine and assemble a staff. Between Jan. 22, 2018, and March 30, 2018, the suit said, he was not paid because his visa had not been approved. Balfour paid $7,500 to Healy’s wife in February after Healy complained, the suit said.

In March 23, 2018, Balfour informed Healy that his visa had not been approved, and a week later Shane Skinner, another investor in the team, said his employment was ended and he would not be paid.

Healy did not respond recently to efforts to reach him for this story.

The 2018 season was the first of Major League Rugby, with seven teams competing from April 21, 2018, to the championship game on July 7, 2018. The Seawolves won six of eight games, losing twice to the Glendale, CO., team, which they beat in the championship game.

 

No country for mixing rugby and biking

The idea was to ride my bike across Montana and North Dakota and keep track of the Seattle Seawolves rugby team at the same time.

It was an idea doomed to fail.

The Seawolves vs. Austin Elite game on Saturday, June 9, was not carried on TV networks available in Jordan, MT, (pop. 386). Especially since the game was played on Friday, June 8, which shows you how out of touch I was after four days of bike riding (246 miles). I heard it was a nail-biter with Seattle winning, 20-19.

And Seawolves vs. Glendale Raptors on Saturday, June 16, while in Lisbon, ND, (pop. 2,124)? Forget it. Yes, really forget it. Seattle lost 33-11.

But I did get to see the U.S. team beat Scotland, 30-29, which bodes well for the national team going forward. Maybe a win or two in the 2019 Rugby World Cup? That would be welcome across the land – even in Jordan and Lisbon, should they hear of it.

About this bike ride: It was not my idea. My sister gets credit/blame for that. It’s her goal/obsession to ride across all of the lower 48 states. We did Iowa and Nevada in 2017. Arkansas, North Dakota and the rest of Montana were on tap for 2018. I promised to ride across Arkansas with her, but our plans fell apart due to other priorities.

I said I would be support and gear/guidance (SAG) for her on Montana/North Dakota. But when her riding partner backed out, what kind of brother would I be if I left her pedaling alone somewhere between Great Falls, MT, and Fargo, ND?

KT at truck
Kathy preparing lunch the first day at the SAG wagon.

SAG duties fell to the spouses, and Kathy and Don can never be thanked enough.

JB and Don
With Don along the way in Napoleon, North Dakota.

It all started on June 4 when Kathy and I started the drive from Seattle. . .

 

 

Poor tackling? Or great running?

Peter Steinberg, CBS Sports rugby commentator, insisted during the Seattle Seawolves game against the New Orleans Gold May 12 that poor tackling on the part of the southern team led to their 31-29 defeat.

And 100 percent perfect tackling would mean no tries scored and certain victory — or nothing worse than a 0-0 tie. But poor tackling can have two causes. The defenders might be slow, weak or easily got around, as Steinberg seemed to imply about NOLA. But some players are just hard to tackle. Some players like William Rasileka, Shalom Suniula, Will Holder, Matt Turner, Peter Tiberio, Peter Smith. Those Seawolves backs cut up the NOLA defense to combine for four tries. Smith was the perfect kicker, connecting on all four conversions and a penalty. (Steinberg also rightfully pointed out that NOLA could have tied the game with one more successfully kicked conversion or won if one of their missed penalty kicks had gone through.)

None of those Seattle tries would have been scored if NOLA tacklers had been more proficient, but the quick steps, deceptive passes and well executed plays of the Seattle backs made the NOLA task daunting.

And Seattle’s game is an exciting one to watch. Major League Rugby liked this score enough to name it the try of the week:

But for my money, the Seattle movement that starts at 2:00 in the video below is a lot more fun to watch:

On Sunday, the Seawolves face the Utah Warriors at sold-out Starfire Stadium back home in Tukwila. (5:30 PDT)

The Seawolves had to hang on to the very end to get the win against NOLA, and from the MLR game report on Utah’s win last week over Austin, it sounds like Seattle better be prepared to hang around to the end again if they want a victory. Austin’s Hanco Germishuys summed it up this way: “It just came down to the end. At the end Utah had more pace than us, more passion to get that win. In the second half we had that 20 minutes but then we started falling off.”

For Seattle on Sunday, there can be no falling off.