Legion Unleash on Austin 45-15

by Chad Wise
images: Griff Lacey

SAN DIEGO  – The San Diego Legion dotted down seven tries in a 45-15 defeat of the visiting Austin Elite Rugby ay Torero Stadium Sunday night in Week 11 of the 2019 Major League Rugby season.

Psalm Wooching’s Man of the Match performance embodied an all-around consistent effort from the team who were home for the first time since March 10. The Legion remain in fifth place in the league standings with 31 points, behind last week’s victim, Seattle, with 32 points, and Week 12’s road game opponent Rugby United New York, also with 32 points.

“We know Austin are a much-improved side after narrowly missing out on wins against NOLA and New York the previous two weeks,” Head Coach Rob Hoadley said. “Seattle was a physical battle but we had a great training week and started fast, which put us in a great position.”

Falling behind early courtesy of an Andres Vilaseca penalty kick from 50 meters, the Legion took the game by the scruff of the neck on attack. Going forward over the gain line with nearly every attempt, the home team found the try zone twice on either side of the water break.

Austin found life difficult with possession, moving backwards eight minutes in and losing the ball to Nate Augspurger in contact. Lou Stanfill quickly sent the ball on its way to Jordan Manihera for the finish by starting wing Save Totovosau. Totovosau almost extended the 5-3 lead and doubled his tally minutes later after another forced turnover by the Legion defense, only for the first of two try-reversal calls to be made against San Diego in the first half.

Though possession was kept with a scrum penalty win, a turnover led to Austin kicking away and then conceding a penalty under pressure. Ryan Matyas saw a ball pass him into touch with space between him and the touch line, but brought down a high clearance kick with a full head of steam inside the 22. With more runway than he knew what to do with, Matyas quickly rounded the defenders in-goal for the try converted by captain Joe Pietersen, 12-3.

Barely giving Austin a moment to breathe, San Diego was right back to pushing ahead towards the try line after Totovosau’s recovery of an Austin kick. Center Dylan Audsley’s run took two defenders out of the play and set the platform for Mikey Te’o to dummy past two more on his way to the team’s third try and a 17-3 advantage.

Austin was pushed back and forced into committing an error with ball in hand, but a forward pass as the Legion tried to exit the defensive half preceded a forwards try by Larome White to cut into the lead, 17-10.

Center Dylan Audsley took over kicking duties for the Legion with Pietersen out of the game, missing his first opportunity moments before the newly-introduced Tai Enosa appeared to score from a one-two with Veremalua. Play was called back, and Jeremy Lenaerts finished an offload-driven counter the other way to make it 23-15.

The kickoff bounced off of a crowd of players, with Seattle substitute scrum half Phil Mack unable to handle the ball. Augspurger, ever the opportunist, snagged the ball and flipped it up to Veremalua for an easy run into the try zone, extending the lead to 28-15. Matthew Turner made it a six-point game, 28-22, with 10 minutes remaining, but the Legion saw out the first victory for a visiting team at Starfire Stadium this season with assured go-forward runs to maintain possession until the final whistle.

A high tackle did nothing but momentarily slow Augspurger’s momentum in the 32nd minute as the scrum half quick tapped and gave the Legion a territorial advantage. Back-rower Devin Short carried the momentum with a broken tackle before Paddy Ryan and Pietersen helped to get within five meters of the try line. Augspurger, in the thick of every phase, smartly cut back inside towards the ruck, beating one defender and shoving another across the line for the bonus-point try and 24-10 lead.

Wooching was the focal point on defense as Austin gasped for a sight of San Diego’s try zone before the end of the half. After sending his opposite number to the ground, the flanker got back to an onside position and bowled over the ruck. Austin lost the ball forward trying to regroup, and the Legion promptly returned to a scoring position. Audsley dummied a pass and held on for a wide ball to Matyas, whose successful run and dive into the try zone was whistled for a knock signaled by the line judge, bringing the half to an end.

“We managed to gain some ascendancy in the physical battle at the gain line and took care of the ball,” Hoadley said. “This allowed us it play off quick ruck ball and stretch the Austin defense, creating gaps. We definitely left a lot of points on the board and need to sharpen up our finishing.”

Though perhaps rightly feeling aggrieved by two decisions made in the build-ups to would-be tries, the Legion wasted no time adding to the scoreboard in the second frame. A lineout four minutes in turned to a solid maul, from which Pietersen found JP du Plessis on a line. The inside center slipped between two Elite players and fended a third in the middle of the field to open the hole required for his fourth try of the year.

Holding a 31-10 lead, San Diego lost possession with the kickoff but continued to use quick line speed and a high tackle success rate to drive the visitors backwards. Regaining possession later through a Totovosau strip in contact, the Legion padded the lead to 38-10 with Wooching’s try. Stanfill and du Plessis set Austin’s defense on its heels before Manihera found his back-row partner with a nifty offload.

Substitutes preserved starters’ legs in the final 30 minutes, maintaining set piece momentum and keeping the Elite to just Maikeli Mudu’s try on a missed lineout throw. Nick Boyer looked to take advantage of the minutes with hard-charging runs, including a try-scoring effort two minutes from time. The Legion forwards called for a scrum after Austin conceded a penalty in front of its posts, and local San Diegan Drew Gaffney found the reserve scrum half for the final nail in the Elite’s coffin, 45-15.

Austin remains winless in 10 matches played this season as San Diego improves its record with a fourth home victory. Hoadley and Co. continue the climb to the 2019 MLR Playoffs Sunday, April 14, at Rugby United New York. On 32 points and in third place after only eight matches played, the first-year MLR team is on a five-match unbeaten run with two of those wins coming in the team’s only two home games at MCU Park in Coney Island.

“We are growing every week,” Hoadley said. “The MLR is a fantastic competition that presents a new challenge each week. It is incredibly congested in the table. We are just focused on doing our job and putting in another great training week.”

Sunday’s match is scheduled for an 10 a.m. PT kickoff live on ESPN+.

Watch the full re-play of the game here.