Well, it’s the big game. The last two wins have been convincing, but NOLA and DC were not the stiffest opposition that the Jacks must overcome if they want to be contenders this year. How they perform this Sunday will show whether your New England Free Jacks are capable of going toe-to-toe with the best of the East, or whether they are still a developing team who should, at least for now, aim for that third playoff spot.
The big new this week is the return of Harrison Boyle and John Poland return after their variable periods of absence, however their replacements Waaka and Yungert continue on as the starting halfbacks. It remains to be seen whether this is still temporary, to ease in the recently injured Boyle and Poland, or if this is Mathie’s game-plan moving forward. Waaka at flyhalf may well be permanent if Fife returns next week to move into fullback, but it is dubious the same is true of Yungert and Poland.
Otherwise, this is very much the same team that suited up over the last few games. So far, this has been a solid squad, and getting repeated game time together is great for the team’s development. The question is do they have the X-factor to push them over the top against a good team.
Waaka again returns at flyhalf, and once again this is the proper call. Having him guiding the attack and using his outstanding kicking game will once again be a large part of how the Free Jacks are going to win this game. He will need to be better from the tee than he was last week, especially as alternative goal kicker Poland is in the reserves. How the Free Jacks go about activating Balekana, and the rest of the backline, will be critical. The real question is how they can put pressure on LA to create the counter-attacking opportunities that propelled the attack against DC.
The New England scrum last week also looked solid, but that may be the pressure point that the strong LA pack could attempt to capitalize on. However, the LA lineout really does not look stellar, and their breakdown work was questionable against Toronto, so if the loose forwards can capitalize on that then LA will struggle.
Well, how are the 'tinis?
The Giltinis are no longer the great and undisputed best team in MLR, brought low by a stunning loss to the SaberCats in week one and a less than stellar win against Toronto. They did stabilize in that Toronto game, but a good degree of that success was not due to the team gelling and showing off a strong game plan, but really just due to the individual talent that they have, and the poor discipline, bad tackling and bad backfield cover of Toronto.
The offensive strength of the Giltinis comes from two sources. First, their incredibly powerful ball carriers, exemplified by Ryberg and practically every forward, and, second, Billy Meakes. Meakes is great with ball in hand, and has a fantastic feel for the right pass at the right time. Scrum-half Goddard did impress last week, making some stellar passes, and creating several breaks for the Giltinis. How the Free Jacks defend that first pass, and how well they close off space with their pressing defense, is something to look out for. Hanco Germishuys, the USA flanker, is a new addition to the Giltinis roster and will also be one to watch. Luke Burton starts at flyhalf for the Giltinis, and should provide an experienced hand in the position.
The problem with LA’s attack is execution. Some of their moves against Toronto failed because their runners did not fix the Arrows as they were meant to. I doubt that was because of some brilliant defensive rugby by the Arrows, but more because the dummy lines and passes were not compelling. Much of their go-forward came from penalties, and from individual flashes of brilliance that Toronto could not handle. If New England’s better organization and, frankly, defensive capacity can blunt that, then your Free Jacks have an excellent chance of taking a win from the dreaded enemy at the Coliseum.
New England by five. Either New England are contenders, or they are not. The Giltinis look like a solid team, but not a team that is a lock for the Shield, or who even have a compelling case for it. Struggling to dispatch a Toronto squad that had difficulty eking out a one-point victory over the flaccid Gold is not very impressive. New England, by contrast, are a team that has not struggled against opposition so far, with the game plan and talent necessary to challenge for the East. Whether they live up to that promise is yet to be seen.
Venue: LA Coliseum, LA
Time: 6 PM ET, Sunday, February 27th
Weather: 70ish degrees, low wind
Broadcast: TheRugbyNetwork, NBC Boston (on tape delay, airing 8:30 ET)
1-15: Starters, 16-23: reserves
Your New England Free Jacks
- Foster DeWitt, loosehead prop
- Pieter Jansen, hooker
- Erich De Jager, tighthead prop
- Josh Larsen, lock (captain)
- Stan Van Den Hoven, lock
- Joe Johnston, flanker
- Slade McDowall, flanker
- Terrell Peita, eight-man
- Holden Yungert, scrum-half
- Beaudein Waaka, flyhalf
- Harry Barlow, left wing
- Le Roux Malan, inside center
- Jack Reeves, outside center
- Paula Balekana, right wing
- Mitch Wilson, full back
- Mills Sanerivi, reserve hooker
- Kyle Ciquera, reserve utility? prop
- Tevita Sole, reserve tighthead
- Reegan O’Gorman, reserve lock
- Cam Davidowicz, reserve back row forward
- John Poland, reserve scrum-half
- Harrison Boyle, reserve flyhalf
- Wayne Van Der Bank, reserve utility back
- Djustice Sears-Duru
- Andrew Tuala
- Les Leulua’iali’i-Makin
- Dave Dennis (Captain)
- Nathan Den Hoedt
- Angus Cottrell
- Hanco Germishuys
- Corey Tomas
- Harrison Goddard
- Luke Burton
- John Ryberg
- Billy Meakes
- Ben LeSage
- Will Chambers
- Jordan Trainor
- Sean McNulty
- Luke White
- Charlie Abel
- Adam Ashe (not cooper)
- Christian Poidevin
- Tas Simth
- Ryan James
- Cristian Rodriguez
See you next week for NEFJ @ RNY, as New England begins its campaign for the East in earnest.