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Major League Rugby Week 1 Recap: Dallas' Surprise Package; Three New Clubs

Major League Rugby Week 1 Recap: Dallas' Surprise Package; Three New Clubs

The Miami Sharks, Anthem Rugby Carolina and Rugby FC Los Angeles all played their first games in new homes last weekend, as MLR kicked off its seventh year.

Mar 5, 2024 by Briar Napier
Major League Rugby Week 1 Recap: Dallas' Surprise Package; Three New Clubs

The winds of change may have come through Major League Rugby last season, but the core product of the MLR — the rugby — hasn’t stopped.

Gone are the Toronto Arrows and Rugby New York, and in are Anthem Rugby Carolina and the Miami Sharks. Rugby ATL has become Rugby FC Los Angeles. The league, unquestionably, looks a little bit different than what most of us are used to seeing.

The excitement on the pitch, however, still is humming along, and all we needed was the first week of the 2024 MLR regular season to reiterate that fact.

Here’s a look at the week that was in Major League Rugby, as the United States’ top professional rugby league kicked off its seventh season of play this past weekend:

Jackals Take A Wild One in Los Angeles

Life for the Dallas Jackals in the MLR has been rough since the club’s inaugural campaign in 2022, and Dallas entered this season with a combined record of 2-30, with just 23 points in the table scored across two years. 

But for 2024, at least, the Jackals can call themselves undefeated. 

The last match of the league’s opening weekend was a banger, with Dallas traveling to face Rugby FC Los Angeles in its first match since moving to the West Coast from Atlanta in the offseason. 

While the City of Angels welcomed professional rugby’s return to the city, the visiting Texans wreaked havoc on a celebratory setting with a wicked comeback and 32-29 win.

Down 26-10 just before halftime, Dallas scored right before the intermission off of a lineout to cut the deficit down to single digits, as Canadian hooker Dewald Kotze had two first-half tries.

Taking advantage of some RFCLA discipline issues, including going up by a man for a chunk of the second half, Dallas chipped away and got back into the match, as Kotze scored another try to seal his hat trick, and fly-half Martin Elias booted through a drop goal in the 78th minute to take the lead, sealing the Jackals a big win and boost of confidence for a club that has been struggling for much of its existence. 

Seawolves Win Late Over San Diego

A highly anticipated rematch of last season’s Western Conference final, Seattle (which fell to the San Diego Legion last July for a spot in the MLR Championship) got revenge in dramatic fashion with a 25-19 win at home at the Starfire Sports Complex. 

A 7-for-7 performance from the tee from former New South Wales Waratahs fly-half Mack Mason (six penalties, one conversion) kept the Seawolves afloat, though they struggled at first to find the try that could make the difference in the match against the Legion, who broke through with the first try of the game in the 57th minute through Josh Henderson. He also kicked through the conversion.

Down 19-18 in the final minutes, Seattle needed some late magic to get redemption, and they got that magic from USA Eagle, 2022 MLR Rookie of the Year and center Tavite Lopeti, who took a ball batted forward by a San Diego player and scurried away in space for an epic try at the death. 

Two titans of American professional rugby who should be in the thick of the title mix once again, Seattle and San Diego’s first meeting of the season absolutely lived up to the hype.

Hounds Rain On Miami’s Parade

Hosting the first professional rugby game ever played in Florida this past weekend, the Miami Sharks' debut didn't go according to plan. 

But for the Chicago Hounds, they were more than happy to take advantage and put their feet down on opening weekend as a team to watch this season, especially since they're coming off a  3-13 debut campaign in 2023. 

A weather-delayed match at AutoNation Sports Field in Fort Lauderdale took a bit to get going, as Chicago and Miami each traded a pair of penalty kicks in the opening 15 minutes, but two penalty tries for the Hounds spaced out within 11 minutes of each other in the first half put the Hounds in front by a 20-9 margin at the break and forced the Sharks to have to find some late fire on the attack in rainy conditions. 

Miami eventually scored the first try in its history, and the only non-penalty try of the match, through former Leinster and Munster prospect and Ireland youth international Sean McNulty in the 49th minute, but Chicago held firm for a 23-19 win. South African fly-half Adriaan Carelse was 3 for 3 on penalties, even with the poor weather conditions. 

Free Jacks Spoil Anthem RC’s Debut

Anthem Rugby Carolina got a tough test in its first match in club history — the defending MLR champion — and New England showed the rookies exactly why it’s the class of the league right now in a rout to begin its title defense. 

The Free Jacks were brilliant from start to finish in Charlotte, leading 29-3 before the halftime whistle and finishing with a 46-13 victory.

Reece MacDonald secured a hat trick, reigning first-team All-MLR center Ben LeSage had a brace and three other New England players (Andrew Quattrin, Cameron Davidowicz and Namibian World Cup squad member Wian Conradie) picked up tries in the blowout. 

Anthem, a unique club by MLR standards, as it is backed by both World Rugby and USA Rugby in the efforts to build players up for the United States' national team, got the first two tries in club history in the final 15 minutes through wing Mateo Gadsden and fullback Josh Shetler. 

Still, it was by and large off of the pace of the powerful Free Jacks, who are looking to join the Seattle Seawolves as the only teams to have won multiple MLR titles (and repeat titles, for that matter). 

NOLA Golden In Season Opener

The coach Cory Brown era in New Orleans got off to a strong start as the Gold — in MLR from the beginning, yet still looking for their first playoff appearance in team history — had one of the weekend’s top performances. They toppled reigning Eastern Conference finalist Old Glory DC by an 18-6 margin at The Gold Mine, holding DC to the fewest points scored by any club in Week 1. 

A defensive struggle for much of the game, the Flags led 6-0 at the intermission through two penalties from returning fly-half Jason Robertson in his second stint with the club after two seasons in France, including one in the top-flight Top 14 with Bayonne. 

It took awhile for NOLA to get on the scoresheet, but once it did, the points started rolling in. 

Samoa international Rodney Iona kicked a penalty six minutes before the Gold found their breakthrough from center Jordan Jackson-Hope, who carried the ball over in the 66th minute. 

Another try from Taniela Filimone, plus kicks (one penalty and one conversion) sandwiched around it from Reece Botha — who set up NOLA’s second try with a brilliant solo run and chip — sealed the deal and made it a boisterous day in the Bayou. 

Houston Holds Firm Over Utah

A showdown between two MLR originals, Houston (pushing for the playoffs for the third consecutive season) welcomed fans back to the rugby-specific SaberCats Stadium with a strong 22-15 win over the Utah Warriors in which newly-acquired Australian center Tautalatasi Tasi — a rugby league convert formerly of the Toronto Arrows prior to the Canadian club’s folding this past offseason — scored a try and put up a man of the match performance in his debut. 

His score in the second half helped give the SaberCats some insurance, as they built the lead to 22-3 at one point, which especially came in handy after Utah tried getting back into contention with a two-try flurry in the final 12 minutes through Spencer Jones and captain Bailey Wilson that helped the visitors get the bonus point. 

But Houston’s first-half domination, in which they had the lion’s share of the ball and played a physical style that helped wear down the Warriors early on, was enough to push the SaberCats through and secure themselves four points, being only behind the impressive Jackals in the Western Conference table through one week in the 2024 MLR season. 

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