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Legion Defeat Warriors 21-10 to go 3-1

by Chad Wise

SAN DIEGO – Another wet match day at Torero Stadium resulted in a third consecutive San Diego Legion Major League Rugby victory Sunday as Head Coach Rob Hoadley’s squad defeated the visiting Utah Warriors, 21-10.

Captain Joe Pietersen set both JP du Plessis and 20-year-old Devin Short away for first-half tries and connected on four of five kicks as the Legion snagged the lead and held onto it until the final whistle. San Diego remains in second in the League table on 13 points behind NOLA Gold ahead of the first away match of the season at Austin Elite this Friday.

A slick playing surface set the platform for a long day in the set pieces for both teams. Prop Paddy Ryan met opposite number Franco van den Berg inch for inch in the scrum and the Legion lineout tormented the Warriors, while Kapeli Pifeleti admirably stepped in to relieve an injured Chris Turori midway through the first half. The half-back pairing of Nick Boyer and Pietersen did well to get the ball out of the pack’s feet quickly, but self-inflicted errors did keep a bonus-point victory out of reach.

“I feel that we can be happy with the win; we were tested under pressure a few times and also put ourselves under pressure at times,” the captain said.

Sustained possession by the Warriors in their offensive half was met by quick Legion line speed around the 15-minute mark, ultimately forcing the visitors into losing the ball. Utah could not handle the attacking pressure and was whistled offside. The Legion continued on the front foot with a lineout win minutes later, and lock Lou Stanfill took three Warriors with him to the ground with a hard-running carry to create space for the opening try.

Nate Augspurger followed the big man past the 22 and got the ball out to Mikey Te’o before Pietersen changed direction with an inside offload to du Plessis. The center slipped a would-be tackler and dotted down, and Pietersen converted, 7-0.

Pietersen nearly created his own try with a chip kick that was lost forward in the attempt, but was called upon to extend the lead to 10-0 with his first three-point kick of the day in the 23rd minute after a penalty in the scrum.

Augspurger bounced back from a knee to the head in a 29th-minute tackle moments before Utah center Tim O’Malley slotted a penalty kick to cut San Diego’s lead to 10-3. The Legion were well on their way to another score with 10 minutes remaining in the half, but Utah slowed down the attack and was penalized for not releasing a tackled player inside the 10. Pietersen punished the Warriors with a penalty kick in the middle of the field, restoring the 10-point lead at 13-3.

Stanfill cleaned up a loose ball that had been hit out of Boyer’s hands in the 38th minute, and the scrum half followed the play for du Plessis to break a tackle over the 22. Pietersen sent the final pass to Short 10 meters from the line – taking a hard hit for his efforts – as the flanker ran uncontested over the try line. The fly half narrowly missed the touch-line conversion to keep the score at 18-3 at the halftime break.

A miscommunication on a high kick preceded a San Diego turnover as the second half got underway, and Angus Maclellan was the beneficiary of a lineout-turned-maul-turned-try for Utah’s response. The lead was again cut, 18-10.

“The lineout drive was very disappointing as we were slow to pressure the Utah setup and paid the price,” Hoadley reflected. “We won a lot of collisions and looked threatening in attack, but undermined many of our opportunities through conceding unforced turnovers.”

The Legion threatened in the attacking half but failed to find the final incision as they sought a four-try bonus point. Te’o saw a pass intercepted within 20 meters of the line as Utah wing Fetu’u Vainikolo raced towards open field, but Ryan Matyas and Short engaged in a chase to stop the scoring opportunity. In the fourth consecutive MLR weekend of play, the 21-10 final score was capped by Pietersen’s 73rd-minute penalty kick and a final penalty decision won by the young front-row replacements.

The head coach emphasized the team’s high compete levels embodied in some of the younger players on display Sunday as a positive factor in the victory.

“It was great to close the game with three points after Oti Pifeleti, Kapeli Pifeleti, and Aaron Mitchell earned a scrum penalty,” he said.

“It has been great to see Devin’s progress. His chase back with Ryan Matyas to stop a certain Utah intercept try highlights the attitude he brings. We want to create a pathway for young players like Devin, who now has the opportunities to make their mark on professional rugby in San Diego and nationally.”

The Legion have a short week to prepare for the Round 5 matchup with Austin Elite in Texas, which kicks off Friday, Feb. 22, at 5 p.m. PT.