12 Jun MLR Championship: Position Matchup
by: Colton Strickler
The defending champion Seattle Seawolves and top-ranked San Diego Legion are marching into Sunday’s MLR Championship match about as evenly matched as they could possibly be. It’s logical that the last two teams standing also feature some of the best players in the entire MLR, but what’s extremely interesting is to see how well these two teams match up across the board.
It’s hard to give either team the edge no matter which way the roster is spun and examined. The Legion head into the match with 47 First XV selections over the course of the season while the Seawolves have earned 46 selections. The Legion have won 204 lineouts while the Seawolves have won 203. San Diego was selected MLR’s Team of the Week four separate times in 2019 while Seattle earned the honor twice. The Seawolves had six players earn MLR’s Player of the Week honor while Jasa Veremalua was the only member of the Legion to earn the honor in 2019.
One key statistic the Seawolves do have a clear advantage in is the percentage of scrums won. The Seawolves lead the entire MLR in this department, winning 95.65 percent of their scrums, while the Legion come into the match winning 88.32 percent of their scrums, the fifth most in the MLR. One player that has been a massive contributor in the Seawolves’ engine room all season long has been lock Brad Tucker. Tucker has had an MVP caliber season in 2019. He heads into Sunday’s match with six tries, a league-leading 258 tackles and 181 ball carries. Another member of Seattle’s forward pack that has torn up the pitch all season long has been Riekert Hattingh. The eight-man has carried the ball a league-high 190 times for 1,287.8 meters and eight tries while also making 186 tackles in 2019.
The Legion will rely on prop Paddy Ryan, whose presence has helped stabilize San Diego’s scrum and earned him a whopping 10 selections to First XV teams in 2019, to lead their forward pack on Sunday afternoon. In the first two meetings between these two sides, Ryan gobbled up a combined 94 meters on 14 carries and completed 22 tackles. San Diego has also received solid contributions from the veteran Lou Stanfill all season long. Stanfill carried the ball 13 times for 28 meters and a try in addition to making 17 tackles in the Legion’s two wins over the Seawolves this season.
The scrum-half and fly-half positions have been positions played by a committee for the Seawolves in 2019, and that has resulted in a winning formula. In their 30-17 win over the Arrows in the semi-final round of the MLR Championship Series, J.P. Smith and Ben Cima donned the nine and 10 jerseys. That same combination took the pitch the second time the Seawolves and Legion met this season, a match the Legion won 28-22. Cima put nine kicks in play for 374 meters in that meeting, and his ability to exploit space will come in handy on Sunday since Legion fullback Mikey Te’o will be out after turning his ankle in San Diego’s regular-season finale. In addition to his work in the kicking game, Cima has scored one try and has accounted for five try assists in 15 matches this season while Smith has scored five tries and distributed three try assists while appearing in every match in 2019.
Nate Augspurger and Joe Pietersen have been constants for the Legion in 2019. Pietersen ranks fourth in the MLR in total points scored with 150. He’s punched in five tries, distributed nine try assists, and accumulated an 85.7 goal percentage. Augspurger’s solid play at scrum-half this season earned him eight First XV selections in 2019. In the last meeting between the two teams, Augspurger carried the ball six times for 55 meters and completed 20 tackles in a winning effort. He’s scored five tries while dishing out seven try assists in 2019.
San Diego will rely on JP du Plessis to build upon his strong performances at the inside center position on Sunday afternoon. Du Plessis has shown up big time in the two times these teams have met this season, totaling 18 carries for 146 meters and 36 tackles in those two matches. He made a team-high 26 tackles in their Week 10 win over the Seawolves. For the Seawolves, it was the veteran center and team captain Shalom Suniula that got the nod at inside center in their semi-final match against the Arrows and finished with seven carries for 62 meters and 16 tackles. Suniula has punched in four tries and five try assists in 2019.
Seattle’s back three has been spearheaded by wing Brock Staller all season long. Staller leads the MLR in scoring with 217 points on six tries and a goal percentage of 79 percent. Staller has also dished out five try assists to help him earn five First XV selections in 2019. The Seawolves’ counterattack will take on a Legion back three that will be without Te’o, who was a big contributor in both of San Diego’s wins over Seattle this year. In the first two meetings, Te’o combined for 16 carries for 206 meters and a try while also completing eight tackles.
Both teams have made key additions late in the season that will likely play big roles on Sunday afternoon. For the Seawolves, the additions of forward Samu Manoa and wing Jeff Hassler have been massive over the last few weeks. Hassler has already punched in two tries in just four matches and has earned his way onto back-to-back First XV teams in the last two weeks. For the Legion, they have already gotten big production out of lock Josh Furno, who scored a try on one of his six carries for 18 and made 10 tackles in San Diego’s semi-final win over RUNY.
With two star-studded casts squaring off on Sunday, The MLR Championship is sure to be chock-full of high-octane thrills and talent.
The MLR Championship will kick off at 1 PM PT on Sunday, June 16 in Torero Stadium and will be broadcast on CBS.