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Major League Rugby Week 4 Preview: Who Steps Forward In The West?

Major League Rugby Week 4 Preview: Who Steps Forward In The West?

Seattle and Houston took care of business in Week 3, setting up a massive clash between unbeatens for first place in the Western Conference this weekend.

Mar 22, 2024 by Briar Napier
Major League Rugby Week 4 Preview: Who Steps Forward In The West?

Major League Rugby arguably is at its strongest point, quality-wise, than it’s ever been.

Week 3 provided plenty of evidence to that claim.

Between a draw and four other matches being decided by 11 points or fewer — and a 68-point outburst from a club that has been buried at the bottom of the standings for much of its existence — we may be in a new era of the MLR in which multiple weekly blowouts from a certain few haves playing against a lot more have-nots are a thing of the past.

If so, that’s a great indication for the rest of the 2024 season. 

As for this weekend’s slate of play, the stage has been set for more possible close battles, as Week 4 could lead to some serious consequences down the line for some clubs.

Here’s a look at Week 4 in Major League Rugby, which kicks off Friday:

Seawolves, SaberCats Strive for First Place

The highlight match of the week in the MLR is a big one, with huge potential playoff implications, even with well over half of the regular season remaining. 

Basically, expect some fireworks Friday night in suburban Seattle.

The Houston SaberCats travel to the Seattle Seawolves to kick off Week 4 in a highly anticipated showdown between the top teams in the Western Conference and only unbeaten clubs remaining in the league. 

A rematch of last year’s Western Conference eliminator, in which Seattle outdueled Houston by a 37-26 margin, numerous heavy hitters for the Seawolves will be aiming to take down the SaberCats once again, but Houston (which has allowed a league-low 46 points this season) has appeared early on to have the total package to be a serious contender for its first MLR title. 

The “SaberBoks” are living up to their name with a hefty contingent of South Africans leading the charge to their unbeaten start, with scrum-half Andre Warner making the MLR First XV for Week 3 after a try-scoring performance in Houston’s win over the Miami Sharks and former MLR Forward of the Year Johan Momsen thriving at lock after arriving in the offseason from Rugby ATL (now Rugby FC Los Angeles). 

To add to the potential drama ahead, this weekend’s match also will be the first between Houston and Seattle since the two sides pulled off a blockbuster trade in the offseason, where Samoa international and key fly-half AJ Alatimu (who went 6 for 6 on kicks to eliminate Houston in last year’s playoffs) was dealt to the Sabercats for Joe Taufete’e, a USA Eagles standout and the team's all-time leader in international tries by a hooker. 

Taufete’e, a former World Rugby Player of the Year nominee, started and scored a try in the Seawolves’ 23-13 win away over the Utah Warriors this past weekend, making the MLR First XV for the last round, along with teammate Jade Stighling, who has picked up a try in each of his past two matches. 

Reece MacDonald Can’t Stop Scoring

Arguably no back in Major League Rugby is in better form right now than Reece MacDonald, with the 26-year-old New Zealander showing no signs of slowing down after an impressive debut season for New England in 2023, winning the club’s Rookie of the Year award as an important player in the the Free Jacks’ run to the MLR title. 

The fullback (who was named the MLR’s Player of the Week in Week 1) has ripped defenses apart to start the year, scoring five tries in three games and finding the area in each of New England’s matches thus far, including an important one this past weekend against the upstart NOLA Gold. 

His score helped the Free Jacks win 27-21 in Week 3 and return to the top of the Eastern Conference table following a home loss in Week 2 to Old Glory DC — one which ended New England’s 13-match winning streak dating back to last season. 

An attacking option who can exploit space like few others currently in the MLR, MacDonald can help New England grow its lead at the top with a winning performance on the road against the Chicago Hounds in Week 4, though a much-improved Chicago is coming off of the season’s first draw against the same Old Glory side, which toppled the Free Jacks. 

Avoiding consistent slipups the rest of the way will be important for New England, as it’s no longer the overwhelming favorite to take the East, and its push to try and become the MLR’s second repeat champion could take big blows if it is caught by clubs trying to play spoiler. 

But with players such as MacDonald in the mix, who are difference-makers and important pieces to the puzzle, the Free Jacks will remain strong. 

Just how strong, however, remains to be seen.

Will Miami Or Carolina Get First Win?

The MLR’s two expansion clubs for this season, it’s been a weird few weeks for the Miami Sharks and Anthem Rugby Carolina, as they each get used to life in the United States’ top professional rugby league. 

Both teams are winless, and they'll meet each other this weekend in Charlotte, but to call each team merely off the pace compared to the rest of the league would be unfair. 

Let’s start with Anthem, which is unlike any other in MLR, as the World Rugby- and USA Rugby-backed side’s main focus is to develop promising talents for the United States' national team, with any trophies won the MLR merely being a bonus. 

There undoubtedly have been some major growing pains — like giving up 24 tries, over double the amount of any other MLR team through three games — but a tough opening three matches against New England, NOLA and the Dallas Jackals didn’t help, and Anthem was in a winnable scenario (down 12 points) with under 20 minutes left against the Jackals, before they dealt their final blows. 

Youth is Anthem’s biggest drawback, but the fact that they haven’t been utter laughingstocks and can string together some good stretches of rugby has been a pleasant surprise. 

Anthem’s growth has a major opportunity to take a step forward against Miami, which held its own against mighty Houston this past weekend but needs to find an effective and consistent try scorer, considering that 14 of 19 points against the SaberCats came from the tee and that the Sharks have a league-low four tries on the season. 

The tendency of Anthem to have a leaky defense may give Miami some ample opportunity to try different things out on the attack and see what works; the Sharks need something, especially with both they and Anthem nailed to the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings on one point apiece.

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