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Major League Rugby Week 14 Preview: East Conference Cluster Creating Chaos

Major League Rugby Week 14 Preview: East Conference Cluster Creating Chaos

The Eastern Conference has turned into a three-horse race, as recent form has flipped the division on its head. Also, what's with the surging Miami Sharks?

May 31, 2024 by Briar Napier
Major League Rugby Week 14 Preview: East Conference Cluster Creating Chaos

Finally, we may get a confirmed picture this week of what the Major League Rugby playoff outlook looks like.

There’s just under a month to go before the end of the MLR’s regular season, and for the first time this weekend in Week 14, a team can clinch a playoff spot for certain. 

That means the dominoes are beginning to fall across the league, and the race for dwindling playoff spots is underway, indicating we’re about to see some of the best (and most intense) rugby of the MLR season.

Five matches are on tap this weekend, and the most important month-long stretch of the league season.

Excited yet?

Here’s a look at all you need to know ahead of Week 14 of the Major League Rugby season, part of FloRugby’s coverage and analysis of North America’s top professional rugby league: 

Who Steps Forward In The East?

The Eastern Conference truly has turned into a three-horse race for the title, and if you like a bit of drama in your rugby, keep your eyes and ears locked into whatever happens at the top of the East table over the next month and change. 

Here’s where everything stands in the East entering Week 14:

The New England Free Jacks (the defending MLR champions) are atop the standings with 35 points on the year, but injuries to key players have seen them begin to fall flat after a 5-1 start and original assumptions that they’d run away with the Eastern Conference crown. 

The club this week signed a trio of reinforcements in ex-Bristol Bears scrumhalf Oscar Lennon and winger Toby Fricker plus New Zealand native Jed Melvin at flanker, giving the Free Jacks a little bit of much-needed depth as they return to action at home Sunday afternoon against the Dallas Jackals. 

The NOLA Gold are giving New England its biggest push for the East title, as the club from the Bayou has won four straight matches, rocketing its way back up the pecking order (with 34 points entering this week) as the first playoff appearance in club history (since 2018) looks more and more realistic by the week. 

The Gold will be underdogs against the cream of the crop of the MLR, the Houston SaberCats, this weekend, however, but how they perform against a team widely expected to be at the forefront of the conversation of title favorites could be an important look-in to how NOLA could fare come postseason time as a potential spoiler. 

And then there’s the third-place Chicago Hounds, who have had a great season with a new franchise-record tally for victories (five), but at five points back of New England with a game in-hand over both the Free Jacks and NOLA, Chicago has the most work to do in order to surge back up to contention for the lead in the conference. 

Off in Week 14, the Hounds can’t do much to improve their standing except hope Dallas and Houston clobber New England and NOLA, respectively, but a turn in form to close the season after three consecutive defeats entering this weekend would be of the most benefit to the Hounds in the long run. 

Houston, Seattle Can Be First To Clinch

The on-fire Houston SaberCats and/or the battered-and-bruised Seattle Seawolves can become the first teams in the MLR to clinch a playoff spot this season. 

Houston can do it by way of ending Week 14 more than 20 points ahead in the standings of the fifth-place Utah Warriors, making playoff elimination at that point with four regular-season games remaining impossible. 

Seattle, meanwhile, cannot clinch a playoff spot this weekend, as it is on bye, but a matchup with Utah looms in Week 15, which could seal the deal at that point for the Seawolves. 

Neither team should be especially concerned if clinching the postseason doesn’t happen in the next couple of weeks, considering how far ahead Houston and Seattle are of other contenders in the Western Conference — third-place San Diego is nine points behind current Seattle, for instance — but with two home playoff matches for the conference’s top two seeds on the line, the stakes are a bit more raised. 

Houston (which could set a new single-season franchise record with its 11th victory this weekend) has a big clash on the road Saturday night at NOLA in what could be a showdown between the league’s top teams from each conference at the end of the regular season, and someone’s extended winning streak — Houston five, NOLA four — will come to an end in the process. 

Meanwhile, in Seattle (which has dropped two out of its past three games), the Seawolves will have to wait for their chance to confirm their postseason destiny, but they need the rest, as the club announced last week that five players (Riekert Hattingh, Charles Elton, Mason Pedersen, Pete Malcolm and Kara Pryor) would be out for the remainder of the year due to injuries, drastically reducing Seattle’s depth amid its late-season charge.

Surprise Sharks Could Make It Three

Hello there, Miami, which has won three out of its past five games and two on the bounce to suddenly make itself a contender in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. 

And, like its home city is known for, the Sharks could be the life of the party in the East soon enough. 

The better of the two Eastern Conference expansion clubs, Miami looked largely out of sorts after a 1-5 start to its life as a club, but huge victory after huge victory — none bigger than last weekend’s, an upset over the conference-leading Free Jacks — has put it just four points back of Old Glory DC for fourth place in the East standings and, therefore, a ticket to the postseason. 

A very winnable game is ahead for the Sharks in Week 14, as they travel to southern California for their first meeting with Rugby FC Los Angeles; they’re the last-place team in the West, which still has won two out of its past three in its own right, ensuring that any Miami win probably won’t be an easy one. 

The key might just be Miami’s start from the opening whistle: the Sharks are 4-0 in games in which they lead at halftime, signifying that they’ve become late-game specialists who take opportunities and refuse to let them slip — like when former Free Jack Tomas Casares scored with seconds left to play against New England to help will his new team to an epic win. 

However, Miami still also does have problems consistently scoring tries, as no team in the league has fewer than the Sharks’ 26 on the season, so if the RFCLA attack can get going through the likes of playmakers like ex-Fiji Olympic sevens gold medalist Semi Kunatani (two tries last week against the San Diego Legion), Miami’s excursion to the West Coast may end with dropped points.

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