Joe Harvey casts an eye over every side in Major League Rugby
Team Guide MLR 2022
On the same day that Ireland face Wales and Murrayfield hosts another edition of the Calcutta Cup, Major League Rugby’s 2022 will return after a six-month break.
Last season it was the league’s newest team that were victorious, a Matt Giteau-inspired Los Angeles Giltinis beating Rugby ATL 31-17 at the LA Memorial Coliseum.
This year there will be another new side vying for the chance to lift the league shield, after the Dallas Jackals deferred the opportunity to make their bow in 2021 as a result of Covid-19.
Outside of a new team, there is only one significant change to how the competition will be played out.
Instead of the top two teams from each conference facing off for a place in the final, the top placed side will instead get a bye week, the teams finishing second and third facing off for a shot at a conference championship.
An off-season of change for all the teams involved, here is how we think MLR’s fifth year could shape up.
Eastern Conference – Team guide MLR 2022
New England Free Jacks
Completing their first season in 2021, New England’s first full regular season promised much.
Scotland international Dougie Fife and former England U20 international Harry Barlow ran riot at times, ultimately missing out on the postseason by a five-point margin.
Head Coach from last season, Ryan Martin, has since departed to take on an assistant coaching role with the Melbourne Rebels and in his place, former Leeds Carnegie and Sale Sharks scrum-half Scott Mathie has come in to take the reins.
With Wian Conradie having moved to Gloucester and Kensuke Hatakeyama gone back to Japan, Mathie has a job on his hands to install a new way of playing. He has 20 new arrivals in Boston to juggle to. Recruits include Jesse Parete, the New Zealander coming to the east coast after time in Japan, whilst Gloucester centre Jack Reeves has signed on a two-year loan basis.
Still possessing many of the tools that helped their backline fire, as well as adding to their forward pack, it is likely that the Free Jacks will compete for a place in the play-offs, the key being whether or not the new faces can align themselves with the pre-existing tools in place.
New Orleans Gold
NOLA Gold have always competed for a place in the play-offs, but never quite made it. In recent months Nate Osbourne, who was the only remaining original head coach from 2018, has departed, with former Newcastle Falcons and Samoa lock Kane Thompson taking the top job.
Significant losses have come in the form of Julian Dominguez, Kyle Baillie and Holden Yungert, but on the whole it is largely the same squad as last season. Sevens international Harley Wheeler has come to the big easy, as has capped USA scrum-half, Devereaux Ferris.
Perhaps the greatest bit of excitement in Louisiana is the instalment of walking highlights reel Carlos Spencer as an assistant coach. Adding his extensive experiences from the club game and in the international sphere, the possibilities of what the ‘King’ could bring seem endless.
Still with Cam Dolan, Dino Waldren, Moni Tonga’uiha and JP Eloff amongst their ranks, the team’s consistency is their greatest friend. Ultimately this adds up to the idea that finally the side will play postseason rugby.
Prediction: 3rd, knocked out in play-offs
Old Glory DC
Following a fifth-place finish in the Eastern Conference last season, Old Glory DC have had perhaps the most significant losses to their playing group during their time off. The team’s fly-half, Jason Robertson, has departed for Narbonne, whilst their first-choice front-row of Jamie Dever, Mikey Sosene-Feagai and Steven Longwell have all earnt full-time contracts in Europe.
Canadian centre Ciaran Hearn has retired, and Mungo Mason has resumed his studies at Oxford University, shining the light on Andrew Douglas’s recruitment like never before. Headlining the group making their way to Virginia is rugby league hero Junior Sa’u, who at the age of 34 will be making his professional rugby union bow.
He is closely followed by MLR regulars Jake Ilnicki, Rob Irimescu and Dom Bailey, whilst Rohan Saifoloi has come in to pull the strings after Robertson’s departure.
Old Glory’s greatest friend in 2022 will be the consistency created by the retention of scrum-half Danny Tusitala, USA centre Thretton Palamo and former England U20 lock Stan South, who was one of the men charged with implementing a lethal lineout.
Just two weeks ago, Rugby ATL’s return to the play-offs would have seemed certain. Fast forward and the future looks much different. Defeated in the final by the LA Giltinis, it was the coaching of Scott Lawrence and the bond of the team that gave you much hope for Atlanta’s future, but after a disagreement with the team’s new owner, Lawrence is no longer with the side.
Recruitment hasn’t had the sprinkling of stardust that other teams have had. Instead of signing a verifiable star of the game, the team must contend with losing top performers from the year prior, Robbie Petzer, Bautista Ezcurra, Chance Wenglewski and Mark O’Keeffe all departing Georgia.
Will Leonard and Evan Mintern have come from Rugby New York, whilst Tiaan Erasmus and John Sullivan have come from the Houston SaberCats and NOLA Gold. Justin Basson and John-Roy Jenkinson come from South Africa to add their weight to the pack, whilst Forward of the Year Johan Momsen returns.
With no head coach or Director of Rugby at present, the team’s bond is the only thing to tie the group to their achievements last year. Their late changes are likely to affect the side in some sense.
Rugby New York
Marty Veale’s team missed out on a place in the MLR Final by just one point. Alex Maughan’s try and Kurt Coleman’s late conversion in the Eastern Conference Final meant that it was Rugby ATL who progressed to the showpiece game, and all the work done during the time off leads you to believe that this team are destined for more.
Perhaps the best bit of recruitment is the re-signing of Andy Ellis, the former All Black a major part of how the team played and operated off the pitch.
He will have a new half-back partner in the form of Sam Windsor, the league’s all-time leading points scorer swapping life in Houston for the big apple and amply filling the gap left by the retirement of Harry Bennett and Dan Hollinshead’s move to Vannes.
USA prop Chance Wenglewski moves back to New York nearly three years since a loan spell there whilst with Rugby ATL, as Ed Fidow, Pago Haini, Nic Mayhew and Brendon O’Connor all join the cause.
Perhaps the greatest question to ask is how the side will fare without Ben Foden. The former England international is taking part in Dancing on Ice in the UK and has not yet officially announced his retirement.
Playing 16 games in 2021, his loss off experience will be felt by any side, the hope being that the 36-year-old could come back to have a significant impact.
Prediction: 1st, overall runners-up
Last season Toronto finished at the foot of the Eastern Conference. From the outset of the 2021 season, everything was against the Canadians, basing themselves in Atlanta for the duration of the season.
Unable to refresh their squad and isolated from their families, ending the season with multiple players out of position whilst their internationals were in England.
Leandro Leivas and Jamie Mackenzie have retired, whilst Ben LeSage has moved to LA. But Gaston Mieres and turnover maestro Lucas Rumball are still calling Toronto home.
Trading for Canada international Kyle Baillie from NOLA Gold, as well as getting promising back-row James O’Neill in exchange for LeSage, the team’s business has been astute.
Recruiting heavily from their local area, overseas signings include Matthew Hood from the Australia Sevens programme, Isaac Salmon from Tasman and Faalelei Sione from Eastern Suburbs, the team clearly hoping to recapture their form from 2019 that saw them reach the play-offs.
Prediction: 2nd, Eastern Conference runners-up
Western Conference – Team guide MLR 2022
Sam Harris’ first season in charge of Austin, it was clear that the Australian had brought change to Texas. In MLR’s short history, Austin had been one of the side’s poorest performing sides, experiencing a winless 2019 season. But in 2021, the team missed out on the postseason by just 10 points.
Trending towards their first every play-off berth, 2022 should be the year that the team break their duck. Fans of the Premiership will recognise the names of Sebastian de Chaves and Bryce Campbell who are part of the leadership group at Bold Stadium.
Former Ealing Trailfinders and London Scottish fly-half Will Magie has returned to a team that has brought in Julian Dominguez from NOLA Gold and Mark O’Keeffe from Rugby ATL, the two backs at their destructive best against their new employer’s last season.
Marcel Brache comes to Texas also, the USA international adding professional experiences in South Africa and Australia to the side, as scrum-half Ryan Louwrens arrives after a stint in Japan.
Prediction: 3rd, knocked out in play-offs
MLR’s newest side already had a mountain to climb, but the announcement that Michael Hodge would be unable to take on his role as Head Coach has made the team’s challenge all the harder.
They have a wealth of experience available to them, former Wales prop Aaron Jarvis leading the forwards, whilst Chris Pennell and Henry Trinder bring their own immense experience to proceedings. Ryan Bower and Todd Gleave also arrive with Premiership experience, the squad on the while having a largely American look.
Much should be expected of number one overall draft pick Eric Naposki, whose performances for UCLA set the world ablaze.
Numerous players have MLR experience, Alex Tucci and Chad London having played in the competition since its inception, whilst Carlo de Nysschen, Adriaan Carelse and Moe Abdelmonem were all relied upon by their former employer’s last season.
Having also recruited from the American Raptors (the crossover athletes programme in Colorado), Dallas certainly are building something at Choctaw Stadium. Having to develop a style of play and get a whole new squad on the same page, it is certainly going to be a challenging season.
Houston have essentially hit the reset button this off-season. Ex-Springboks head coach, Heyneke Meyer, has been installed as director of rugby and former Bulls coach Pote Human has come in as head coach.
The team’s rock-bottom finish in 2021 continued a trend of not exceeding the regular season, with a lot of new faces coming to AVEVA Stadium for 2022. Numerous players have come from South Africa, Willie Britz and Dillon Smit just two, whilst several Eagles have decided to call Texas home.
Danny Barrett, Maka Unufe, Matai Leuta and Christian Dyer have all left the USA Sevens programme for the 15-a-side game, whilst lock forward Siaosi Mahoni has committed to the cause after his time with San Diego Legion came to a close.
Whilst their recruitment suggests promise, many of these players have not played with one another before, meaning that cohesion will take time. Add to this the fact that leaders from years gone by – Sam Windsor, Diego Magno and De Wet Roos – have all left, a lot of work must be done across the four-week preseason to get the group to bond.
In 2021, the Los Angeles Giltinis took MLR by storm. With a star-studded squad that included Matt Giteau and Adam Ashley-Cooper, at times becoming champions of the competition at the first time of asking seemed like a given.
Since lifting the title at the start of August there has been much change at the Coliseum, with Darren Coleman leaving California to take on the role of head coach with the Waratahs, former Wallaby, Stephen Hoiles, taking on the top job and the recently retired Ashley-Cooper starting his post-rugby career as an assistant coach with the team.
Despite their losses, LA have recruited astutely, bringing in numerous players with Super Rugby experience, Canadian internationals Ben LeSage and Djustice Sears-Duru, USA flanker Hanco Germishuys and cross-code superstar Will Chambers, who most recently turned out for NRL side, Cronulla Sharks.
Former England Sevens captain, Tom Mitchell, is the most recent name to commit to the side, who will certainly have a target on their backs.
Luke Carty, brother of Ireland fly-half Jack, will have an increased role at fly-half with Giteau expected not to return and highly rated Australian scrum-half Harrison Goddard is also back for a second shot at a league title.
Prediction: 1st, overall champions
San Diego Legion
After struggling with injury last season, Chris Robshaw will be back in San Diego in 2022. The former England captain and his teammates struggled last season, the group unsettled for large periods of the season after temporarily moving to Las Vegas, before returning to California and playing home games at multiple different venues.
Now staying put in Southern California, Robshaw will be joined by All Blacks legend Ma’a Nonu.
Nonu, 39, is returning to the Legion after a stint with the team in 2020 before Covid-19 put an end to the MLR season, he will add experience and certified star power to the team’s backline.
Joe Pietersen is also returning to the team, as USA full-back Will Hooley moves to the team after his time with Saracens came to an end last summer.
Former Worcester and Gloucester hooker Matt Moulds will now call San Diego home, as former New Zealand scrum-half Danny Lee takes on the mantle of Head Coach.
There is a lot of consistency in this squad, with Nate Augspurger, Ryan Matyas, Peter Malcolm and Ben Mitchell all returning, leading you to believe that the future is bright for a team that promised so much last year.
Prediction: 2nd, Western Conference runners-up
Two-time MLR champions, Seattle, finished fifth in their conference last season. Partway through the season former Ospreys coach Allen Clarke was brought in to help a side that experienced five losses out of their first six outings of the season.
As the season wore on, just three more wins would come, back-to-back victories closing out the season. Now having been able to recruit his own players, Seattle should expect brighter things in 2022.
Former Lions captain Dan Kriel leads a host of arrivals to Washington, as Martin Iosefo, Duncan Matthews, Mzamo Majola and Sam Matenga also come on board.
There will be familiar faces in the form of Mat Turner, Brad Tucker and Samu Manoa, all of whom having experienced a title win with the team.
Having had more time to adapt to the way Clarke wants to play the game, along with a string of high-quality signings, Seattle have improved on paper immensely. But given how uninspired the side was at times last year, it is difficult to know exactly what to expect.
When Wallabies legend Chris Latham decided not to return to Utah, what the future held for the Warriors was uncertain.
A few months down the line, their interim head coach, Shawn Pittman, had won the league’s Coach of the Year award and full-back, Mike Te’o, was the Player of the Year.
Former London Welsh prop Pittman now has dropped the ‘interim’ tag after narrowly missing out on a place in the MLR Final when conceding two late tries to LA. When examining the team’s comings and goings this offseason, it seems like the team has parted ways with several key names.
Eagles scrum-half Michael Baska, 11-try hooker Sama Malolo, fly-half Hagen Schulte and Aston Fortuin have all left for new challenges, their replacements having big shoes to fill.
Former Harlequins scrum-half Niall Saunders will be looking to make his presence known, as will former Highlanders second-row Caleb Makene.
Still with plenty of their standout players amongst the crop of players to have returned, Utah will still be competitive, but may not reach the same heights as the year before.
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