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Legion Outlast Gold, Regain Top Spot in Standings

by Chad Wise
images: Griff Lacey

MARRERO, LA  – The highly-anticipated Week 16 matchup between the top two teams in Major League Rugby turned into battle of attrition and will as the San Diego Legion (10-3-1) saw off challenger NOLA Gold (9-4-0), 26-19, to replace the League leader atop the standings.

The home side fell behind early Saturday and erased three Legion leads, but did not have enough in the tank to maintain the pace of a San Diego team coming off of its first loss since March 10. The Legion’s four-match road trip culminates with a stop in Herriman, Utah, for a Week 17 battle against the Warriors (2-10-1) Saturday, May 18.

The brothers Pifeleti – FAKA’OSI PIFELETIFakaosi (loose head prop) and Kapeli (hooker) – started alongside each other for the second time this season, forming an instrumental front row with Paddy Ryan that bullied the NOLA scrum to maximum effect. Following an early midfield lineout win, the Legion set piece dominated the opposition, winning two penalties at scrum time as the attack neared the try line. When JP du Plessis and Lou Stanfill were stopped short in front of the posts, captain Joe Pietersen skipped the ball out to Save Totovosau for the opening try after 7 minutes

NOLA did finally get hands on the ball from the ensuing kickoff, only to lose it forward and lose yet another scrum to San Diego. And when the home side was gifted a scrum put in a minute later, it crumbled under the pressure. Still, NOLA’s reign atop the standings has not been for nothing, and a 15th minute attack quickly showed why with forwards and backs able to exploit open field. Centers Tristan Blewitt and Con Foley bore down on the try line, but Mike Te’o’s recovery chase as full back put off Foley enough to end the scoring opportunity.

The ball did not escape the Legion’s half before the Gold crossed the try line, however, with Cam Dolan knotting the score at 5-5 off the back of a lineout in the attacking half. Heavy winds permeating Gold Stadium affected the early conversion attempts by both Pietersen and NOLA full back JP Eloff. The same gusts were blowing in a favorable direction for San Diego in open play, though the team found comfort with ball in hand, also allaying the threat of a NOLA back line counterattack.

The Legion continued to use the set pieces to their advantage and found stride with punishing forward runs to near the opponent’s try line again in the 27th minute. Te’o took a defender into contact and offloaded to starting wing Nick Boyer, whose stutter-step sent defender Tim Maupin backwards to open the space for the go-ahead try. Pietersen’s second touch-line conversion hit a post and angled across the bar for a 12-5 lead.

As one might have expected in a match featuring two of the best teams in the League, NOLA did not go into the halftime break quietly. Eloff received the ball on his own side of midfield in the 35th minute for a good break stopped by an even better tackle by Conor Kearns. NOLA retained possession and pursued its open-style play for Dolan to send Blewitt over the line. Eloff was unable to attempt the conversion from in front, though fly half Scott Gale was more than up to the task for another tie score, 12-12, at the break.

Scrum half Nate Augspurger flipped a behind-the-back offload to du Plessis three minutes into the second frame to restore the converted-try lead at 19-12, but an incidental collision of legs in a tackle sidelined Pietersen for the remainder of the top-of-the-table clash. Tai Enosa joined halftime replacements Drew Gaffney and Will Holder at fly half, in position to pick up a turnover in the 51st minute. The ball whisked to Boyer on the wing in space for a try called back to a forward pass.

NOLA opted to play in the wind on the next possession, sending a high ball in the area of Holder in Legion territory. The ball bounced towards the middle of the field and into the arms of Blewitt for his second try, 19-19.

Substitute Pat Blair’s infraction in a lineout within 10 meters of San Diego’s try line was nearly capitalized upon by NOLA, who knocked after an extended possession. Crossing midfield with 10 minutes remaining on the game clock, the Legion pushed back the Gold’s defense with confident go-forward runs, capped by Enosa’s clever shift inside towards the posts as first receiver. The substitute secured a standings bonus point in giving San Diego its fourth lead and try, 26-19.

Keni Nasoqeqe and Psalm Wooching combined to force a turnover at the breakdown to end a defensive stand and joined the rest of the Legion in ticking away most of the remaining three minutes with patient play safely outside the defensive 22. A self-inflicted penalty threatened San Diego’s opportunity to see out the game cleanly, but the Legion reacted well to NOLA’s overthrown lineout to smother the attack and force a knock for the final whistle.

With just three more competition weeks remaining before the 2019 MLR Playoffs kick off, the Legion sit in pole position with the fewest losses and 52 points. NOLA Gold does have a game in hand and grabbed its 15th bonus point of the season Saturday to reach 51 points. The two will help determine the final top-four seeding in Week 19 at Torero Stadium.

The Utah Warriors will host the Legion in its final road match of the season Saturday, May 18, in a rematch of a wet, 21-10, home victory for San Diego in Week 4.

Watch the full re-play of the game here.