2019 Season Recap
With the Seattle Seawolves having successfully defended the shield and once again been crowned Major League Rugby Champions, we can officially close the book on the 2019 season, and start looking ahead to 2020. However, in order for any team in any sport to be able to improve, they need to understand how the success, and most importantly the shortcomings, of the previous season came to be. That way, an organization can continue to move forward, having taken a clear look at the road behind them and built their platform on the lessons learned.
This season had no shortage of potential ‘lessons’. In fact, it may have had a whole curriculum. However, in a season in which a team that ended the previous year in last place and was now navigating the uncharted waters of building the first ever 100%-to-spec rugby stadium in the USA, there was plenty of success to be found.
So in that regard, let’s take a look at a few factors that made this season so interesting for SaberCat-fans everywhere.
A Bumpy Start Leads Into A Smooth Landing
There was undoubtedly more than a few tough moments for SaberCat fans to begin 2019. A 2-8 start to the season left many of them, as well as those in the front office, wanting more, and it became clear to many that some element of change was needed. Therefore, an agreement was reached with Head Coach Justin Fitzpatrick that he would step down before the season’s conclusion, and thus began the period of rebuilding. Or so one might think.
Enter Paul Emerick. The USA Eagle legend, as well as the man they call ‘Cactus’, took over as the SaberCats Interim-Head Coach, having previously served as the team’s Backs Coach. The decision came just days before the team’s second clash with Rugby United New York, with the end result of that match being a 21-0 loss. While the ‘Cats were forced to endure their first shutout in team history, the spark that ignited under their feet was undeniable.
Following the New York defeat, the ‘Cats proceeded to rack up four straight victories against NOLA, Glendale, Austin, and Utah, scoring an average of 31 points per match along the way. The signature victory of that slate had to be NOLA, as it was a match that many have remarked to be the Gold’s ultimate downfall in their playoff hunt. While the ‘Cats may not have tasted the postseason, they were at least able to play the part of spoiler.
Everything is Set, All is at Piece
Even while the ‘Cats early-season troubles were still rearing their ugly heads, the forward pack was the envy of Scrum Coaches across the league, and continued to be so all the way up to the final game. When all was said and done, the ‘Cats ended the season with a league-leading 95% win rate in the scrum.
This was made possible not only through effective coaching but by individual players who were able to come together as one cohesive, dominant unit. While you could go through each one and find a multitude of accolades to expand upon, one’s eye can’t help but be caught by the All-Irish front row combination of Jamie Dever, Pat O’Toole, and Charlie Connolly, who started a total of ten games together and combined for five tries.
Whenever this trio was together, other teams were forced to adapt to a much more physical, tenacious force pushing back on them. It’s not surprising in that regard when you learn O’Toole ended the season with an astounding 23 dominant tackles, tied for second in the league.
Meanwhile, lineouts were a facet of the set piece game worth highlighting in their own right. They ended up winning 85% of total throw-ins (with a 74% Clean-Throw mark), and stole a respectable 15% of their opponent’s attempts.
Much (but certainly not all) of the late season struggles were a result of a backline that, despite brimming with talent, couldn’t seem to put it all together when game day came around. That all changed, however, in the season’s final quarter. The ascension of Paul Emerick to Head Coach seemed to breathe new life into the group, as they suddenly became one of the league’s most effective units in the regular season’s final stretch.
Once Emerick was in, he proceeded to do a little mixing and matching when it came to the usual lineup. Fans might remember the game in which the team’s usual Fullback, Zach Pangelinan, stepped in at Scrum-Half versus Austin while Connor Murphy dealt with an ankle injury. With Fijian Olympic Gold Medalist Osea Kolinisau hanging back in the 15 spot, the ‘Cats went on to claim their most dominant victory of the season.
It didn’t end there, either. The following week Emerick would shock fans even more by pushing the usually stalwart Fly-Half Sam Windsor (127 points, 3 tries on the season) to 12, and inserting Pangelinan in his place. While the move produced mixed results, it exemplified the kind of thinking and effect that a team would hope for from a Backs-oriented coach like Emerick.
With the forward pack already playing a high level, the emergence of the backline was the final missing piece for this team to reach its full potential. Especially when it meant the Fijian-phenom known as Josua Vici (907 meters, 2 tries) got the ball.
In-Season Additions Make an Impact
While a change in perspective at the coaching level can make a big difference, it can’t go unsaid how much an impact was made by players who didn’t appear on the week one roster. In particular, Thretton Palamo, Dieon Mikesell, and Jameson Fa’anana-Schultz.
As stated before, the ‘Cats came into this season knowing the greatest strength of this team was its scrum. That strength was only made stronger when Fa’anana-Schultz was inserted as a regular at 8-man, providing plenty of experience, as well as being just as effective with the ball in his hands (3 tries, 403 meters in six games). His play this season was enough to earn him a spot on the initial Rugby World Cup training squad for the USA Eagles.
Speaking of Eagles, Thretton Palamo made his presence known to fans, and most importantly opponents, the second he stepped into H-Town, scoring a total of 5 tries on the season, along with just being an overall menace in both the offensive and defensive phases of the game. With Dieon Mikesell’s production (3 tries, 327 meters) added on top, the extra boost of talent turned out to be a crucial piece of what the ‘Cats needed to get over the top.
One thing that can be hard to sum up using statistics is just how tough a team is. And one thing fans will agree on, this team is tough.
When you watch the tape on guys like Luke Beuchamp (194 tackles, 17 dominant, 108 carries) and Malacchi Esdale (77 tackles, 10 dominant, 73 carries, 3 tries) there is an imposing element to the way many of these guys played. No matter the result, it was known around the league that a match with Houston would leave you feeling more sore than usual the next day.
While there is still much to be improved upon, the ‘Cats may have established a key piece of their overall identity with this kind of play. And may prove to be the best rallying point for fans and players alike in the future.
Looking to the Future
With a longer off-season than ever before on the horizon, there is much to look forward to. The opening of AVEVA Stadium has given the ‘Cats a permanent home complete with their own practice fields, and the inevitable hire of a new Head Coach.
It is already known that next year the SaberCats will be competing in the MLR-West Division along with San Diego, Seattle, Utah, Austin, and Glendale. Meaning we will be playing each of the aforementioned teams twice, while playing the members of the East Division (New England, New York, Toronto, Atlanta, DC) only once. So while the order of said games is still up in the air, you can still expect a few clashes with some familiar foes.
Hope springs eternal in the Bayou City, both on and off the pitch. So for now, it’s onto 2020.
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By Liam Poach
Photos: BigShotsSnapShots Media & 8th Man Photography
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