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Legion Stun RUNY, Advance to MLR Championship With Last-Minute Try

SAN DIEGO, CA  – If not for the bounce of a ball, the San Diego Legion’s season looked as if it was going to end the same way that it began.

Back in Week 1, Rugby United New York earned their first Major League Rugby victory by defeating the Legion 25-23 at Torero Stadium. On Sunday, 19 weeks after the season opener with a chance at the MLR Championship on the line, RUNY found themselves clinging to a 22-17 lead late in the first semifinal match of the MLR Championship Series.

That was until San Diego inside center JP du Plessis scooped a pass up off the turf and rolled in for a try in the 78th minute to tie the match at 22 points apiece. Fly-half Joe Pietersen nailed the tough conversion secure the 24-22 victory to help the Legion come out on the right side of a match decided by two points this time around.

“It’s an incredible group of men,” Legion head coach Rob Hoadley said of his team after the match. “They never lost belief and found a way to finally convert an opportunity at the death. We need to massively increase our accuracy next week to avoid undermining our performance with sloppy errors. Congratulations to a tough NY team who brought so much to the MLR this year, and put in a strong performance in this contest.”

The Legion finished the match as strong as they started. After five solid minutes of rugby to start the match, RUNY woke up. With their extremely physical brand of rugby, RUNY forced San Diego into penalties and those penalties paid dividends early on.

The first points of the match came in the 16th minute when RUNY turned a San Diego penalty into a lineout. One phase after securing the ball, RUNY prop Paddy Ryan rumbled in for a try on a pick and go to draw first blood. Fly-half Cathal Marsh nailed his conversion to put RUNY up 7-0 heading into the 20-minute hydration break.

Just as it took 16 minutes of the two teams figuring each out to produce the first try of the match, it took another 13 minutes of prodding and poking to produce the second one as well.

After working their way down inside RUNY’s 22, the Legion won the ball in the lineout and spun it across the field. They found some space between the posts and went to work. After a few phases, it was prop Faka’osi Pifeleti who picked the ball up out of the back of the ruck and bulldozed his way in for the Legion’s first try. Pietersen hit the conversion to knot the match at seven.

The Legion took their first lead of the match eight minutes later after Pietersen nailed a penalty goal to give put them out front 10-7, but it was RUNY who would carry the momentum into the locker room at the half. Just as it seemed the Legion would go into the break on top, RUNY hooker Dylan Fawsitt, like he’s done so many times this season, rode a driving maul over the line and in for New York’s second try of the match. Marsh was unable to hit the conversion, but RUNY took a 12-10 lead into the half.

While RUNY may have had the momentum going into the half, San Diego didn’t waste any time snatching it back afterward. After stealing the kickoff, the Legion worked quickly to move into the red zone. Lock Josh Furno finished off the sequence with a try and Pietersen’s conversion gave the Legion a 17-12 lead in the 42nd minute.

Even with San Diego’s swift work, RUNY didn’t panic. They worked their way back down the field to get back into scoring position and forced the Legion into conceding another penalty. Marsh hit the penalty goal to cut the gap to just two points in the 45th minute.

RUNY’s physicality was on full display for the remainder of the match. The Legion did all they could to crack the RUNY defense but were met with crushing tackle after crushing tackle every time they touched the ball. It seemed as if the Legion were going to escape into 60-minute hydration break with the lead after Marsh’s missed penalty goal, but RUNY again applied the pressure.

Fullback Ben Foden caught a pass and put a kick high into the air. After Legion scrum-half Nate Augspurger appeared to lose the ball in the sun, Foden chased down his own kick and found an open James Denise who stepped a defender and scored a try. Marsh hit the conversion to give RUNY a 22-17 lead heading into the 60-minute hydration break.

With their backs against the wall, the Legion had to find a way to crack the dominant RUNY defense. It wasn’t until the 78th minute that Jordan Manihera received the ball out wide and tried to find Will Holder, but was hit in the back by a RUNY defender. The hit, which forced an errant pass, caused the ball to roll through Holder’s legs and into the waiting arms of du Plessis who worked his way into the corner for the try. Pietersen nailed the tough conversion to put the match on ice, and the Legion punched their ticket to the MLR Championship.

“The key was just avoiding errors in possession,” Hoadley said. “The players took great confidence into those last moments, knowing that we had scored tries in similar scenarios against Houston and home and Glendale away earlier in the season.”

San Diego’s victory means that the top-ranked Legion will host the Seattle Seawolves in the MLR Championship on Sunday, June 16 at 4 PM ET. The match will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.

“This is the final step on our mission,” Hoadley said of the MLR Championship. “From the outset, we have worked to become a cornerstone of the San Diego community. It has been incredible to see how our fanbase has grown, and they pushed us over the try line with their vocal support today. We are incredibly privileged to have another opportunity to represent them with pride next Sunday.”

SCORING

San Diego Legion

Tries: Faka’osi Pifeleti, Josh Furno, J.P. du Plessis

Conversions: Joe Pietersen (3/3)

Penalty Goals: Joe Pietersen (1/1)

Rugby United New York

Tries: Paddy Ryan, Dylan Fawsitt, James Denise

Conversions: Cathal Marsh (2/3)

Penalty Goals: Cathal Marsh (1/2)

Watch the full re-play of the game here.