Old Glory prepare for final match of regular season

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Old Glory are gearing up for their final match of the 2023 regular season against Rugby Atlanta, in an Eastern Conference matchup which will decide the location of the home team’s first playoff matchup. As it stands, Old Glory are set to travel to New York for its maiden MLR postseason charge, though the Ironworker’s final match against the Utah Warriors could see those fortunes reversed.

As the Eastern Conference’s three playoff spots are all filled, Saturday’s match will be the last of Rugby ATL’s season, though their final finishing place is not yet confirmed. Currently sitting fifth, they are just three points behind NOLA Gold in third, meaning that there is still room for progression, though a promotion would achieve little beyond bragging rights. 2023 will mark their worst campaign in MLR since a fifth-place finish in 2020, though the season was cut short after just 5 matches by the COVID-19 pandemic. After back-to-back second-place finishes in 2021 and 2022, Atlanta will this year miss out on the playoffs for the first time in their short history.

Given Atlanta’s pedigree, it may not shock you to learn that they have never lost to Old Glory in three previous MLR meetings. The most recent of these came back on April 8 at a rain-soaked Silverbacks Park which resulted in a narrow 35-27 defeat for The Flags. Tries from Danny Tusitala, Willie Talataina, Thretton Palamo, and Marcos Young served to narrow the deficit and claim a bonus point, though we couldn’t quite manage to get the result over the line.

This time around, a prediction is difficult to call. In last week’s road trip to Aveva Stadium, home of the Houston SaberCats, Coach Syms named a much changed, rather inexperienced lineup and receiving a bit of a hiding in return as we lost 31-7. Our only points scored came from a fortuitous first half penalty try, though the on-pitch minutes handed to less experienced players offered some silver linings for Old Glory.

It remains to be seen what strategy Coach Syms will go for this weekend. Will he treat the match as a playoff warmup and return to his reliable starters, or play it safe and stick with the young guns to avoid injuries to crucial players? The decision is tough to call, but based on last week’s squad selection it seems that Coach Syms isn’t placing much emphasis on home field advantage in the playoffs, so you might expect to see a lineup closer to that which played in Texas last time out. Players with potential to feature include Koikoi Nelligan, who forced the issue which led to our penalty try on his MLR debut in Houston, Quentin Newcomer, who impressed in the front row, and John Rizzo, whose pace and creativity has caused problems for many a defender so far this season.

No matter which players Syms sends into battle on Saturday, one has to consider the variable that is our opponent. Atlanta come into this match with four consecutive defeats, a fact which certainly bodes well for Old Glory. This string of poor form includes a home loss to the Dallas Jackals, one of MLR’s worst teams this season, and, most recently, a 24-39 loss to the New York Ironworkers, a result which could prove to be an interesting barometer for playoff predictions following this weekend. In that game, New York shipped four yellow cards but still managed to score five tries, stats which tell a story about a rather lackluster Atlanta team, both offensively and defensively. In what has been a difficult season for Rugby ATL, Old Glory will be looking to take advantage of their poor form to pile on a bit more misery for their guests.

As Old Glory looks to build momentum before the playoffs, which Atlanta players might be best set to upset our fortunes? One name you’d be remiss to overlook is flanker Matt Heaton, one of MLR’s more formidable defenders with 194 tackles to his name, the fourth best count in MLR. The Canada international featured at the Japan World Cup in 2019 and has been a mainstay in the Atlanta squad this season, also serving as a club co-captain. Also worth watching will be full back Rewita Biddle, who carved Old Glory up when we last played with one try scored, one kick converted, and 288 kicking meters. His influence over the team was plain to see, and he will be tricky to neutralize should he appear on Saturday.

-by Arthur Ferridge, @rthur_ferridge

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