Well the rugby was pretty fun. Both teams have a lot to be proud of, and got what they wanted from this match up. New York get two bonus points, and the rebound after being dismantled by LA. New England stretch out their winning streak to seven games and continue to assert their dominance over the Eastern Conference. However, despite a period of mid-match dominance, New England looked beatable by a weaker New York side who, propelled by Fidow’s heroics, led by two points until very late in the contest. I will attempt to unpack what went well, what went wrong, and what may need to change heading into the home stretch for your New England Free Jacks.
New England’s Attack is, for better and for worse, built around Beaudein Waaka
New England’s squad is packed with impact players who can make big carries — guys like McDowall, Malan, Van Der Bank, and Balekana. And big carries are certainly one way to win MLR games. (It’s been more or less Utah’s whole game plan this season and they’re not doing terribly! Right?) But if you want to compete you need to build those guys into a system that can unleash them in a way that will score you points. This is, y’know, rugby.
A good offensive system has two modes of attack. The set-piece and phase play. New England is a team that has built their offense around killer set-piece-plays, some counter-attack magic, and wearing down the other team through great defense until they make defensive mistakes which allow good solid rugby to get a weapon into space. This has so far been an incredibly successful formula, and we saw examples of all of these, except really the counter-attack, on Sunday.
First, set-piece tries. The first Free Jack try came from a well-placed kick-off of the scrum. Waaka placed the kick perfectly, Boyle made a great take, and it paid off with space for Balekana to run into. Great set-piece play, well executed. This try came from deploying Waaka’s boot in a targeted manner specific to the defense in a way that has been pre-coached. This is Mathie being a good coach and making the most of his team, and so long as he keeps being right about what will break down the other team, this will continue to work. Conradie’s try was just really amusing, but it was another great example of one of these set-plays.
The last try showed off the wear-em-down-and-stick-it-in kind of rugby that New England can play. New England is one of the fitter teams in the league (somehow) and Waaka identified that the New York line was leaving a gap around the ruck. Waaka fixed the guard and fed Wilson in through the hole, which lead to the try. If New York were not quite so sluggish, that move may not have worked; there could have easily been more coverage. But New England have this inevitability which is somewhat under-appreciated in accounts of their too-close-for-comfort wins during this streak. They do have the ability to just burst through holes late.
The only part of the New England attack that was really missing in action this Sunday was the counter. Boyle acquitted himself very decently I felt (what a catch on the first try!), but I missed Fife’s pace and vision. New England’s counter-attack is built off of Fife and Waaka’s speed and ability to identify gaps in defense in open space, combined with players who can run outstanding support lines (which was well demonstrated in the winning try against RNY). Against Seattle, this was relatively straightforward because Seattle has a poor kick chase and failed to really organize in a way that could stop Fife bursting through with one of the best support lines this season. Waaka’s famous breaks against NOLA earlier in the season also underline his ability to make this stuff happen.
But on Sunday, New York made better kicks than the Seawolves, and demonstrated a better kick chase and subsequent defense. Nowhere was this more evident than in the try which came from the shank, as Waaka was put under immense pressure, and he made a mistake which allowed New York to capitalize well. Fife was also missing, so New England’s backline was neutered of threat. When Fife comes back, if he does, then New England will get an important dimension of their attack back.
But this all points to what are the two major issues for New England. First, their set piece stinks. The MLR is a league beset by poor lineouts, but New England’s is statistically one of the worst. If your attack is built around set moves off of the set-piece, you need it to be solid and reliable so you can make the most of your opportunities. This is the area that New England should be trying to focus on improving because they have the talent and ability to do so easily and will yield the most rewards.
Second, Waaka is the heart of this attack. And Waaka had real trouble reading and exploiting New York’s defense. The second try came from some great vision by Waaka, but often he seemed lost in trying to orchestrate phases to break down New York’s attack, which left New England scrambling to build into effective phase-play attacks. The plan basically was, compress the defense with forwards and work it wide to Balekana who will do some good stuff and things will generally work out. But I am not sure that is the best game plan and in practice it did not look inspired. On the other hand, he did nail the New York defense’s laziness for the final try with a great pass that won New England the game. Waaka remains the league’s MVP because his speed, boot, and hands are probably the best of any fly-half currently playing. But his ability to read and direct phases is his weakness.
This is all to say that if New England comes up against a team that:
- Reads New England’s set-moves effectively, or breaks down the New England set-piece to a point they cannot run their set-plays off of it anymore.
- Shuts down the counter-attack with effective kicks and kick-chasing.
- Maintains defensive focus through the whole 80.
Then they are in deep trouble unless they can make adjustments. The good news is that they are not under any pressure to make the playoffs; they can rest easy with a pretty simple schedule to close out the season. This will hopefully allow them to coach through their issues. If they can get into a higher gear, either by locking down the set-piece, or getting Waaka or another player to effectively direct their phases, then they will be more or less unstoppable on their march through the Conference Championship game and beyond.
A Few Words on New England's Defense
Mitch Wilson is slower than Ed Fidow. The New England forward’s work-rate needs to come up on folding around the ruck, and there must be a greater focus on organizing quickly when something goes wrong. Other than that, I don’t really have much to say. They did pretty well I felt, and New York’s tries were well-earned, or because Fidow is nutty, or because of mistakes in execution by the Free Jacks that can be nailed down (I refer, of course, to the shank).
Some Ink on the East
Well, I thought that Toronto was going to beat Houston. How wrong I was. The four/five kind of mediocre teams in the middle of the table all kind of with a hope and a prayer for the third playoff spots in their respective conferences are really tough to figure out. I really do not have an answer if New York or Toronto are better than each other. My gut says New York is the better team, especially if Naholo comes in and sharpens up their attack over the next few weeks. I also do not think it really matters. I am totally unconvinced that either could win a playoff game given their current form.
At the high end, it looks like New England are probably still the best team in the East. Atlanta looked unimpressive in large part against San Diego, but the two top teams are so close that their upcoming Round 15 match up will most likely be the decider for who is getting a direct ticket to the Conference final. While New England’s win on Sunday was very, very close, it was still a win away against a team who I think have been playing below their potential in recent weeks.
Next week, New England host Utah, a game that they should win comfortably. If the boys have trouble putting the Warriors away, then maybe we can start really panicking about Atlanta.
There will be another post later this week on tiering the MLR heading into the stretch (a kind of new-and-improved successor to my power rankings that I put out a while back). I just kind of want to write about Seattle because I think they’re doing something really fun and if they can keep their pieces healthy, then I think they can do some good stuff.
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