High-flying offenses may sell tickets, but it’s well known that defense wins championships.
All four Major League Rugby teams still playing over the weekend were living proof of that saying. After the conference finals, it’s clear that whoever is hoisting the shield over their head on Sunday evening will have won in on the back of their defensive efforts.
When the MLR Final gets rolling on Sunday afternoon, fans everywhere will see two of the league’s newer teams squaring off for a shot at the shield as the Los Angeles Giltinis and Rugby ATL punched their tickets to the big dance with wins over the weekend.
Rugby ATL knocked off Rugby United New York 10-9 in the defensive slugfest that was the Eastern Conference final. The first and only try of the match didn’t occur until the 75th minute of the match. That try and the conversion that followed proved to be the difference in the match, as Atlanta hung on for five more minutes to secure their spot in the Championship Final.
Atlanta’s victory was a massive one for two reasons. The first reason is an obvious one. Rugby ATL will get to play for their first championship in club history. The second reason that Saturday evening’s victory was such a big deal was because it served as the first time that Rugby ATL had ever beaten Rugby United New York.
Having joined the league ahead of the 2020 season, Rugby ATL had faced RUNY three times. All three of those matches resulted in losses by three points, 10 points, and seven points for Atlanta. Until Saturday. It came by the smallest possible margin and took almost every minute of the match, but Atlanta finally over RUNY when it mattered most and will have a shot at a title as a result.
For RUNY, the loss served as the second heartbreaking result in the final minutes of a playoff match in as many tries. RUNY was stunned by a try and long conversion at the buzzer to lose 24-22 to the San Diego Legion back in their first playoff appearance in 2019. Having two separate shots at an appearance in the Championship Final decided by three total points is crushing, but RUNY has proven to be a resilient bunch. The scary thing about this competition, though, is how quickly things change. Look no further than the Seattle Seawolves for an example of how things can seemingly turn on a dime. RUNY has already shown that they are close, but now it’s about capitalizing on the opportunities that come their way.
The Western Conference Final featured two teams that could flat-out score in the Giltinis and the Utah Warriors. The offensive juggernaut that was the Giltinis scored 545 points over the course of the regular season, and the Warriors were right behind them with 511. Like the Eastern Conference Final, the two sides’ defensive efforts were front and center, and the match was ultimately decided by a try by Giltinis winger Ryan James in the 76th minute.
The Western Conference seemed to be playing right into the hands of the Warriors. Several different teams learned the hard way this season that you can’t let Utah’s comeback kids hang around for too long in a match or they’ll come back to burn you. That’s exactly what the Warriors did on Saturday afternoon. They just kept hanging around and took their first lead of the match with just over 20 minutes to play. Utah was clinging to a one-point lead with less than five minutes to play before James snuck down the short side of the field and put the final nail in the Warriors coffin.
Despite the loss, the Warriors’ second playoff appearance went much better than their first. They were handled by the Glendale Raptors 34-21 back in Major League Rugby’s inaugural season and have been trying to regain their footing in the competition since. It seems like the Warriors have done just that, and should be right back in the mix when MLR returns in 2022.
Despite the fact that this is their first MLR season, the Giltinis have been the favorites to hoist the shield since Round 1. One team that they haven’t yet beaten though is the team they’ll face in the MLR Championship Final at the Los Angeles Coliseum on Sunday afternoon.
Rugby ATL beat the Giltinis 17-12 to deal Los Angeles their second-ever loss back in May, and after the Conference Finals, a similar scoreline would not come as much of a shock. The match will likely be another streetfight decided once again by defense. May the best team win.
The Major League Rugby Championship Final will be broadcast on CBS on Sunday, August 1 at 2 PM Mountain Time.