Written by Joe Harvey | Photo by Karl Moore
It was only when recording the MLR Kickoff Podcast that Johan Momsen discovered he was the Major League Rugby’s Forward of the Year for 2021.
Making 185 tackles, 11 steals at the lineout and 83 lineout takes across 1,168 minutes played, it was the South African’s well-rounded game that saw him pick up the award.
Representing Rugby ATL in every game that the team played in 2021, Momsen’s performances in black and grey, the 26-year-old was a leader both on and off the field for the team from Georgia and spoke to majorleague.rugby about his 2020 season.
Photo by Karl Moore
“It is weird, because you don’t want to be singled out,” Momsen said. “It was all up to our defense and you look at the stats they put down of me, at the end of the season, it was defense and lineouts that mostly stood out.
“Our defensive system allowed for a lot of positive tackles, big collisions and we did a lot of lineout work.
“It is welcome, nice to get the recognition, but you do always feel like it is a bit of a cherry on top, because it was really the team that made you look good through the season.”
WHAT MAKES ATL SPECIAL
Playing for Scott Lawrence’s team in 2020 too, there were promising signs for ATL before Covid-19 put a stop to proceedings.
Beating Utah Warriors and NOLA Gold, before losing three consecutive games, there was certainly a feeling that one of MLR’s newest sides was heading in the right direction.
Across the first five games of the 2021 season, ATL started indifferently. Winning just two of their opening five games of the season, before winning six fixtures on the bounce and putting themselves in playoff contention.
“We did have a rocky start,” Momsen said. “We went 2-3 and then went on that run, but just before that we had a chat with the boys and asked, ‘do we really believe?’. Then we went on that run, and when we beat NOLA 8-7, at NOLA, I think that’s when everyone believed that we could truly get this.”
What you can certainly say about Rugby ATL is that they do the basics well. That is what allowed the side to reach the Championship Final in the first place and, in many ways, Momsen was the epitome of that.
Carrying hard, rarely missing a tackle and doing everything that he could in order to keep his side on the front foot. It is that effort and desire that put the South African at the top of the pile of nominations for Forward of the Year.
It is not just the lock who has this ethos, with the whole team having bought into this way of playing the game. Added to this, the players are constantly challenged by their coaching staff, encouraged to improve at any given opportunity and to improve their game.
Photo by Karl Moore
“For me, it is really the way the coaches coach, the way you learn as a player and how they enable you to learn,” Momsen said when asked about what brought the best out of him and his teammates last season.
“It is not just telling the players what they are going to do something at the weekend, learning how they are going to execute it, they give you a lot of work to do on and off the field.
“Which makes you grow as a player, and you understand certain scenarios on the field better and you know what to expect better. The coaches are very enabling, and you learn a lot playing under them.”
HOPES FOR NEXT YEAR
After beating Rugby United New York 10-9 to reach the MLR Final, ATL made their way over to the West Coast in order to play the LA Giltinis at the LA Memorial Coliseum.
Starting at No.8 in that game, it was the Giltinis who were ultimately victorious, winning 31-17 beneath the California sun.
Completing just their first full MLR season, ATL were at times a revelation in 2021. That style of no nonsense, hard-nosed rugby was more than effective and will no doubt prove effective in 2022.
On top of this, the experience of falling at the final hurdle will prove invaluable. At the age of 26, the forward is very much a leader in Lawrence’s side, with the motivation to lift the Shield and to create more depth amongst the group.
Photo by Karl Moore
“From now, we want to go forward and finish lifting the trophy, not just standing there watching another team do it. On top of that, I would say we want to focus on developing and growing the squad even more.
“That was one of the things we focused on; by not having just one team and losing a lot of strength when another player comes in for someone. I think we did achieve that; we were the squad to play the most different players, which definitely contributed to our success.
“But, even for growing the sport in America, that is going to be vital. Growing that talent through more players and getting a deeper squad, and for us going down and winning it, that’ll be one of our future plans in Atlanta.”