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Major League Rugby Week 5 Preview: It's Lone Star Shield Week, Byes Begin

Major League Rugby Week 5 Preview: It's Lone Star Shield Week, Byes Begin

A Texas derby now more competitive than ever is the highlight of Week 5 in the MLR, which will see bye weeks in play for the first time this season.

Mar 29, 2024 by Briar Napier
Major League Rugby Week 5 Preview: It's Lone Star Shield Week, Byes Begin

One month down, many weeks left to go.

Four weeks of play have been finished in Major League Rugby’s 2024 campaign, and well-deserved off weeks are coming for a few teams this weekend, as they eventually will be for all clubs this season.

The haves and have nots of this year’s competition look clearer with each passing round, and though a slate of fewer matches will take place in Round 5, the high-quality play and potential for action won’t slow down, as numerous teams will be looking to pick up some important points.

Here’s a look at what to watch for in Week 5 of the Major League Rugby season:

Bye Weeks Begin For Four Teams

The MLR has completed a month of its season, meaning that the first round of two bye weeks have begun for four teams: NOLA Gold, Rugby FC Los Angeles, New England Free Jacks and Utah Warriors. 

Games in hand will come into play in the league standings, but for New England and NOLA — Nos. 1 and 2 in the Eastern Conference table heading into Week 4 — their standings will stay the same, no matter what happens across the rest of the league this weekend. 

The reigning MLR champion Free Jacks and upstart Gold (under first-year coach Cory Brown) are level in the East’s standings on 15 points (with New England holding the top spot due to scoring differential), already eight points ahead of the Chicago Hounds and Old Glory DC, as they both head into their first bye weeks with three wins from their first four matches. 

New England’s lone defeat, which came via a one-point loss to Old Glory in Week 2, has been merely a slight bump in the road for coach Scott Mathie’s men, who have the league’s solo top try-scorer in fullback Reece MacDonald (five) and great quality throughout the squad. 

The Gold’s only loss came to New England in Week 3 as NOLA (a MLR original that has never qualified for the league’s postseason) is off to one of its best starts in club history.

Regarding the Western Conference teams that are off this week, however, Utah and RFCLA’s separate runs of form have been opposite to their Eastern counterparts. 

The brutal West has seen the Warriors and LA anchored to the bottom of the conference on eight points, with RFCLA holding the advantage in the standings thanks to both scoring differential and a win over the Warriors in Week 4. 

Considering that the West’s other four teams in Houston, Seattle, San Diego and Dallas all look early on like teams who can make some noise in the postseason, both RFCLA and Utah must maximize the benefits of the bye and get things sorted out in enough time to keep pace with the rest of their division.

Unbeaten Houston Goes To Texan Rival

The Houston SaberCats stamped their foot down as the undisputed team to beat in the MLR when they dispatched the Seattle Seawolves last week in an instant classic, winning a dramatic 42-40 shootout on the road to be the league’s last remaining unbeaten team at 4-0. 

The No. 1 team in the Western Conference on 18 points, Houston is riding high with a big boost of confidence for good reason, but a trip to an in-state rival in the Dallas Jackals — a club that’s already been defying expectations set for it for much of this season — could make for a dangerous trap game, if the SaberCats aren’t careful. 

Dallas is 0-4 all-time against Houston since joining the MLR for the 2022 season, but the battle for the Lone Star Shield arguably is as competitive as it’s ever been, considering that no team in the league has scored more tries than Dallas’ 20 this season, four of which have been scored by hooker Dewald Kotze to make him tied for second in the MLR among all players this season. 

This is a much-improved Jackals unit than the one seen in previous years, with their two wins in 2024 equaling the club’s win total in its previous two seasons combined, but the SaberCats also are performing at another level to everyone else in the MLR right now and will be a difficult matchup, regardless of which opponent comes their way. 

Lock Johan Momsen and center Tautalatasi Tasi each were named to the MLR’s First XV for Week 4 off the back of their performances for the SaberCats against the Seawolves, and both will be in Houston’s starting XV against Dallas on Friday night, along with versatile fly-half Davy Coetzer, who shifts back to the No. 10 role after starting at fullback against Seattle.

Have Sharks Found An Attacking Edge?

Was the Miami Sharks’ 50-point explosion in the first win in club history (against Anthem Rugby Carolina last week) a one-off against a team with major defensive issues, or is it a sign of things to come for the Sunshine State’s MLR representative? 

The Sharks certainly will be hoping it’s the latter, particularly as they welcome the San Diego Legion — a squad that has allowed a league-low seven tries thus far this season — to southern Florida in Week 5. 

After failing to reach the 20-point mark in its opening three matches (all of which were defeats at the hands of Chicago, Seattle and Houston), Miami tore Anthem apart last weekend in a showdown of the league’s two expansion teams, scoring seven tries and picking up a bonus point, as the Sharks try to climb their way out of the Eastern Conference’s cellar. 

No. 8 Manuel Ardao, a Uruguay international who has suited up for Los Teros at two Rugby World Cups, was spectacular for Miami in its statement win and earned himself a spot in the MLR First XV (along with teammate and fly-half Felipe Etcheverry) with a brace, but there was a major caveat to the Sharks’ scoring spree as the youth-filled, development-focused Anthem has given up 31 tries on the year thus far, which is by far the most allowed from a team in the MLR.

Therefore, it makes it unlikely that the Miami attack is going to have as many opportunities to score against San Diego, a rigid group that has won three in a row since an opening-round loss to Seattle and one who could take first place in the West with a win and points dropped by Houston.

Ex-Scotland international Blair Cowan is one of the leaders of the Legion’s defense, evidenced by his 19 tackles against Chicago this past weekend in San Diego’s 27-11 win over the Hounds in Week 4. Similar play from him and other Legion difference-makers could create a frustrating day for the Sharks — unless we’re truly seeing the start of an attacking emergence from Miami.

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