Warming-up for the Major League Rugby championship game, Rugby New York wore t-shirts proclaiming themselves “Iron Workers”, a team identity built on the blue-collar battalions who built New York City itself.
The small crowd at the Red Bull Arena in Harrison, New Jersey indicated the work ahead if MLR is to become a major player on the US stage, never mind the world, before the Rugby World Cup arrives in 2031. But then, the city back over the Hudson wasnt always full of skyscrapers. Someone had to put them up.
Someone has to show America rugby. New York and the Seattle Seawolves, twice champions before, gave it a very good go. Both teams showed plenty of attacking intent, both sets of fans made noise.
Seattle struck in the first moments, working left and right until AJ Alatimu, his Samoan fly-half, saw an overlap for Martin Iosefo. The wing, a US sevens Olympian, cruised over the line.
New York’s response was rather more, well, blue-collar, a series of pugilistic raids setting up the Kiwi flanker Will Tucker – whose brother Brad was on the Seattle bench – to smash over. After that the teams swapped penalties for high tackles, Alatimu hitting and Jason Emery missing for 8-7 Seattle after 20 absorbing minutes.
That was the moment for the first hydration break, as the temperature pushed 90F (32C) at pitch level, and if the consequent breaking of the game into four quarters seemed very American, it also seemed entirely fitting.
Next, a penalty try. The New York pack drove from a line-out, the maul went down in a flurry of bodies and limbs and the referee ran to the posts. Rhyno Herbst, Seattle’s enormous and appropriately named South African lock, was sent for 10 minutes off the field. So it goes: 14-8 New York.
Seattle were struggling for possession even with Herbst on the field. Prompted by the former All Blacks scrum-half Andy Ellis, playing the last game of his long career, led by the Irish-born US hooker Dylan Fawsitt, the New York pack turned the screw.
Ellis had two more New Zealand World Cup winners outside him, the full-back Nehe Milner-Skudder and wing Waisake Naholo. Both threatened – and the New York fans realized you can sing “Waisake Naholo” to the tune of Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes – but it was Ellis who got the try to capitalize on the one-man advantage. From a short-side break the fly-half Jack Heighton, another Kiwi, sent his halfback partner over.
The half closed with Seattle on the attack for the first time since their try in the opening minutes. This time New York held.
The break was a chance to hydrate, and to ponder the future of a league which went into its playoffs dogged by controversy, after the disqualification of Austin and Los Angeles, the top two teams in the west. There is a lawsuit, filed by Adam Gilchrist, the Australian owner of the Gilgronis (Austin) and Giltinis (LA). No guilt – or Gilt – or otherwise has yet been established. World-round, rugby is beset by politics and power-struggle. Welcome to the club, MLR.
In the second period, New York went for the kill. The replacement prop Kalolo Tuiloma got desperately close but Seattle held. But they labored to escape their 22 and eventually Emery kicked a penalty for 22-8.
With half an hour left, there should have been no way back for Seattle. Iosefo and Riekert Hattingh, the captain and No8, a South African-born US Eagle, worked to reverse the tide, attacking the short side dangerously. But the backs could not hold the ball and soon Emery and Andrew Coe, New York’s Canadian wing, were streaking back to the Seattle 22.
The score came from Nic Mayhew, a Kiwi substitute prop, after a break from Tucker, the Kiwi flanker, and a clever reverse pass from Brendon O’Connor, another Kiwi flanker, once of Leicester. There are those who chide Rugby New York as the “New Jersey All Blacks”. They do play in Jersey but it was their journeymen New Zealanders who shone on Saturday.
The Seawolves weren’t sunk, Samuel Matenga, the tighthead prop, galloping over for a try and 27-15. Then they broke again and Will Tucker was sent to the sin-bin for killing the ball. From the resulting scrum Brad Tucker, the bad boy’s brother, scrambled over the line. A try would have brought Seattle within a score but it was called back by the TV replay, for a New York penalty.
That wasn’t quite it for a game played with an impressive hiss-and-roar, in unrelenting heat. Kaleb Geiger, New York’s sub hooker who was playing baseball two years ago and has learned rugby from scratch, had some line-out wobbles but held up under scrum pressure and put in a big hit or two. Mayhew won a turnover and Milner-Skudder kicked his team upfield. Sam Windsor, the Australian replacement full-back, dropped a goal for 30-15.
Before the end, the tannoy was playing Glory Days by Bruce Springsteen. When in Jersey. Once the whistle went, the DJ switched to Sinatra. New York, New York were MLR champions. After the Shield was presented, New York’s New Zealanders performed a haka.
Rugby New York: Nehe Milner-Skudder; Andrew Coe, Jason Emery, Fa’aisiu Fuatai, Waisake Naholo; Jack Heighton, Andy Ellis; Wilton Rebolo, Dylan Fawsitt, Chance Wenglewski, Ben Bonasso, Nate Brakeley (capt), Will Tucker, Brendon O’Connor, Antonio Kiri Kiri. Replacements: Kaleb Geiger, Nick Mayhew, Kalolo Tuiloma, Nick Civetta, Joe Basser, Conor McManus, Sam Windsor, Quinn Ngawati.
Tries Tucker, Penalty, Ellis, Mayhew Con Emery Pen Emery DG windsor
Seattle Seawolves: Matt Turner; Ross Neal, David Busby, Dan Kriel, Martin Iosefo; AJ Alatimu, Juan-Philip Smith; Mazamo Majola, James Malcolm, Samuel Matenga, Samu Manoa, Rhyno Herbst; Andrew Duratalo, Travis Larsen, Riekert Hattingh (capt). Replacements: Sean McNulty, Kellen Gordon, Taniela Tupou, Brad Tucker, Clark, Reid Watkins, Tavite Lopeti, Lauina Futi.
Try Iosefo, Matenga Con Alatimu Pen Alatimu