You can disregard what I wrote last week, we have a new biggest game in club history to look forward to. Following an emphatic 33-37 victory over Rugby New York in the preliminary elimination round, we will travel to Quincy, MA, to face the New England Free Jacks in the Eastern Conference Championship.
Unfortunately for Old Glory, the odds are not stacked in our favor. With a stronger squad, a better record, and an extra week of rest, New England have quite a few aces up their sleeve. Old Glory will need every ounce of skill and perseverance displayed against New York if they want any hope of bringing home a result and progressing to the MLR Championship game.
This match will mark the third meeting between Old Glory and the Free Jacks this season, though it is a tie which Old Glory are yet to win in competitive play, with 2023’s pair of defeats combining for an aggregate score of 55-76. What better time to bag a maiden win over a regional rival than a conference championship?
New England has been a dominant force in the east this season, finishing with 68 points to their name, 25 more than both New York and Old Glory, the second and third place finishers. They finished the regular season with a 14-2 record, falling only to the San Diego Legion and Utah Warriors. Their most recent loss is ancient history, coming on March 31, meaning that by the time Saturday rolls around the Free Jacks will not have lost a game for 92 days, a record bettered only by San Diego (118 days).
New England has charted some frightening results this season; a 47-24 demolition of Houston, a 5-80 dismantling of Toronto, and a 50-3 destruction of New Orleans, to name a few. As you can tell by their points differential of +283 (the best in MLR), the Free Jacks are no strangers to a one-sided game, so rest assured they will have no qualms about taking advantage of the slightest Old Glory mistake or weakness.
Quincy also serves as home to a squad of some of the best performing players in MLR. Full back Jayson Potroz leads the league in points scored (133) and successful kicks at goal (55), while also having kicked for more than 3.5 kilometers over the course of the season, the fifth highest tally in the league.
Also in the squad is Paula Balekana, a Fijian winger with 13 tries to his name in 2023. Based purely on an eye test, he seems to be one of the quickest players in the league, boasting a mean top speed and the rapid acceleration to match. He scored a brace of tries against Old Glory back in March, and will certainly pose a huge threat to our backline on Saturday.
Balekana was injured in the reverse fixture, though New England made up for his customary two tries with a pair from Namibian flanker Wian Conradie. Conradie leads the league in carries by quite a margin (192) and has made the fifth-most tackles to boot (206).
If Old Glory want to stand any chance of downing New England, they will need to play far better than they did against New York. While we played fairly well, particularly given the adverse circumstances of playing away from home, having two players in the sin bin at once, and conceding a try less than one minute after kick off, we conceded far too many penalties (11), and a team like New England will quickly punish us if we do the same this weekend. We certainly cannot afford any yellow cards, not to mention two.
Old Glory will once again be forced to rely on big performances from its leading lights. Big performances will be needed from experienced players like Danny Tusitala, Tito Diaz Bonilla, and Jamason Fa’anana-Schultz, and the same can be said for other squad leaders such as Kyle Baillie, Jack Iscaro, and Junior Sa’u. For Old Glory to stand a chance in New England, all 23 men on the squad list will have to be absolutely on top of their game, there will be zero room for error.
That said, anything can happen in knockout rugby. While Old Glory are clear cut underdogs coming into this seminal match, who can say what will happen on the pitch? We have the desire and the fight, all that’s left to do is play a game of rugby. We hope we’ll see you there!
-by Arthur Ferridge, @rthur_ferridge