Written By Joe Harvey I Photo By John Matthew Harrison
In the 2022 Major League Rugby season, the New England Free Jacks ended the regular season as the team to beat. Entering the postseason with a 13-3 record, under the guidance of new head coach Scott Mathie, the side would fall to eventual MLR champions Rugby New York in the Eastern Conference Final in Quincy, Massachusetts.
Getting to the playoffs has been something of a battle for the team first introduced to MLR in 2020. The team’s debut season had the curtain brought down early as a result of the global pandemic. In their first full season in 2021, a 10-6 record was not enough to help them into the playoffs for the first time.
2022 was nothing short of mesmeric. The New England Free Jacks’ run to the Eastern Conference Final included a 10-game winning streak, the longest in MLR history, and when the end-of-season awards rolled around, they found the Coach of the Year in Scott Mathie and Player of the Year in Beaudein Waaka.
Now well into their preparations for the 2023 season, Major League Rugby heard from the team’s General Manager, Tom Kindley, and veteran scrum-half, John Poland.
OVERACHIEVING IN 2023
“We overachieved significantly,” Kindley said. “Our roster wasn’t quite where we should have it. I think a lot of players played really well. Above and beyond expectations. The coaching staff performed really well, and we were a really tight-knit group and probably punching above our weight.”
From their very first game of the season, it was clear that there was something different about this New England group of players. Opening their season up against the NOLA Gold, despite being on the wrong side of the penalty count, the men from Boston ended as 24-12 winners in Louisiana.
Moving straight into their first bye week the following weekend, it was two games later that the side first tasted defeat. A 19-15 loss to the LA Giltinis at the LA Memorial Coliseum, the last negative for the better part of three months, as the side won 10 on the trot and established themselves as the team to beat.
Performances were underpinned by a settled group of players, domestic players coming to the fore and the otherworldly talents of Beaudein Waaka pulling the strings at fly-half. Playing alongside the New Zealander, who has since departed for a life-changing opportunity to play for the Kobe Steelers in Japan, was John Poland.
The Irish scrum-half has been a member of the team since they began their preparations for life as a professional team in 2019. A constant for the side, the 25-year-old who was recently confirmed as returning to Quincy, Massachusetts, says it was due to the squad’s depth, the team, and relationships with one another that they were able to push to that next level.
PHOTO BY ED MORAN
“We had talent across the board, but different guys stepped up at different moments,” Poland said. “Waaks had moments where he just did something crazy and won us the game. We had so much talent, but we also had so many guys that also were working together toward something.
“It was the unity that was our key factor, compared to teams with way more star power, way more firepower, and maybe a better bench, but didn’t necessarily have the same team culture and off-the-field bond.
“We were probably one of the younger teams. Everyone was just keen and eager to impress, work together and just kind of be happy to be there. I think all the eagerness and youthfulness really stood out to us. There was never that much complaining or negativity.
“That enjoyment kind of went hand in hand with winning and performing on the field. We knew the better we performed, the easier it was going to be to enjoy the weekend and enjoy each other’s company.”
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINALISTS
All of the team’s successes eventually led to that Eastern Conference Final at Veterans Memorial Stadium. However, playing Rugby New York, the side making their way up the east coast to play their local rivals ended the 80 minutes as 24-16 victors.
The match was a close contest between two sides who always play out memorable ties, and only when Andrew Coe scored a late try was the game won for the road team.
“Lads were gutted to be fair,” Poland said. “It was a really closely contested game. A few calls didn’t go our way, and it was like a classic cup game where a few decisions on the field, in terms of tactics and stuff, that we maybe got wrong in the moment.
“Never once in that game in that game did we consider that we were not going to win. We always thought we were going to win, that there was a chance to come back. There were one or two scores in the whole thing and two really evenly matched teams.
“We were all gutted initially. It was really hard to take, but also, the day itself was a class occasion. We had our jerseys stitched in it, we had loads of fans there, the game itself was entertaining, and it wasn’t like we got swept.
“It was more like ‘we could have won that,’ and ‘we should have done that.’ It was more like that missed opportunity more than anything else. It could have easily been us in the Final against Seattle, and we might have won it.
“It was almost surreal to be there, playing so well and playing against New York and in such a close game and good occasion in Quincy.”
PHOTO BY JORDAN BORROSH
In the months following that result, in mid-June, Kindley began his preparations for 2023. A part of the team since their inaugural season in 2020, the New Zealander says that a loss just one game away from a place in the Championship Final has given him plenty of food for thought and direction for where to improve in the new season.
“We were really grateful to host a playoff game,” Kindley said. “We gave that to our fans, which was awesome. They were so delighted to host a playoff game. So that was the coolest thing. We felt as though Andy Ellis was probably the big difference there. They have Jason Emery and Brendon O’Connor, a bit more experience, which came through in those big games.
“We probably felt as a coaching and a management group that we punched above our weight, so it was really important that we set the bar higher in terms of our playing group and the depth and the talent in that.”
A LOOK TO 2023
Among a series of re-signings, there will be returns to New England for Josh Larsen, Mitch Wilson, Paula Balekana, Kyle Ciquera, and Zach Basters. There will also be new arrivals like Andrew Quattrin, Cole Keith, Jayson Potroz, and Conor Young.
Intending to add depth to a side that, by his own admission, was punching above its weight, there is hope amongst the club’s ranks in Quincy that the team can make the playoffs for the second year in a row, with players walking into their facility that has had a facelift over the summer.
“Definitely excited to rip into 2023,” Kindley said. “For the first time, we have got a high-performance unit training together, doing skills and gymming a couple of times a week with our head coach, who lives in Boston year-round now, which is a significant change.
“Our facility is nearly done as well. So we have our own facility, offices, analysis room, and medical room, just three minutes from the stadium, so that is a massive game changer for us. I think we are really excited to see the smiles on faces when players come in and see the development that we are just trying to get a lot better across all aspects and spending the time to do that, to give them an even better experience heading into next year and hopefully see the fruits of that.”
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