Written by Joe Harvey Photos by Caean Couto
With the 2023 Major League Rugby season underway this weekend, Seattle Seawolves scrum-half JP Smith believes that the two-time champions are ‘excited’ to kick off the new campaign against Rugby New York – Ironworkers this Saturday.
Some last minute touches before our match against @rugbynewyork tomorrow!
Who are we seeing at @StarfireSports?#TogetherWeHunt pic.twitter.com/xHbCMVjqGG
— Seattle Seawolves Rugby (@SeawolvesRugby) February 17, 2023
Playing the side who bettered them 15-30 in the 2022 Championship Final, there is revenge on the cards for the team’s head coach, Allen Clarke, who welcome the Eastern Conference side to Washington in one of the opening round’s two nationally broadcast fixtures.
“The time off that we get is just enough time to get you refreshed and get all of the injuries sorted out,” JP Smith said.
“It’s short enough to get you back excited. As soon as the season starts, you have been waiting so long, it is good to be back, see everyone again and see all the boys again. Now, for the season to start, there is a lot of excitement.”
Smith is an MLR veteran. Signing for Seattle ahead of the 2019 season, the 28-year-old has been a mainstay in the starting XV ever since.
Lifting the MLR Shield after his first season on the west coast, the South African combined with AJ Alatimu to guide the Seawolves to last year’s final and to begin a new campaign. The side will hope to banish those memories with a strong start.
After a preseason in which Smith and his teammates bettered Seattle Rugby Club and the American Raptors, there are plenty of new faces among the Seawolves ranks, leading Smith to believe that all his side can do is focus on themselves.
“There was a bit of a sour taste in our mouths,” Smith said. “We were fortunate enough to get into the playoffs, and we managed to make it all the way through to the final and play in New Jersey.
“It is always difficult; traveling to the east coast, where we were the underdogs and starting on the backfoot. It did leave a bit of a sour taste in our mouths, but what happened last year is done.
“It is a new season, it is a new year, we have got new players in our team, and we are excited about the new season. We have worked on some things, and for us, the focus was mainly just on us.”
Across the offseason, the Seattle coaching staff has been assembling a side capable of pushing for the playoffs once again. As a result, Smith is one of the final players left with the side that took the club to the top of MLR.
Among others, Clarke has recruited Peter Malcolm and Ben Mitchell from San Diego Legion, along with Mason Pederson, Jake Turnbull, Ronan Foley, and Conner Mooneyham, who all have extensive experience in the competition.
Along with their draft picks and Charles Elton from New Zealand and Jordan Chait from South Africa, it is a side that will be looking to pick up exactly where they left off.
It has been a return to the top of the MLR standings that has been long in the making after the side’s disappointing 2021 season, which was forbode by what we saw of the team a year earlier in the Covid-19 disrupted season.
“I am very happy with the new guys that we got in,” Smith said. “Everyone is playing with heart in the team, and we have created a squad where we have got enough depth, and we have created a more high-performance environment.
“There are a lot of people pushing each other, and it is not like one player plays every game. There are guys eager to play and good guys eager to play.
“I think that is one thing we have developed at Seattle, is the depth in the squad where everyone is good enough to play; that is one thing that also helped us a lot, getting new guys in and bringing in some expertise from other teams and international teams.”
FOCUSSING ON THEMSELVES
With a 16-game regular season ahead of him, at this stage, 2023 is full of potential for the group. Smith is as aware of this as anyone, the former Blue Bulls and Southern Kings half-back having nearly a decade’s experience in professional rugby.
This first game against the current champions will by no means define Seattle’s season but will certainly set the standard from here on out and contribute to the growth of this Seawolves side.
“There is a big focus on us,” Smith said, “we are not really too worried about who we are playing. New York did leave a sour taste in our mouths from last year, but that is not the occasion.
“It is a new season, a new year, and we do need to give New York the respect they deserve, but from our side, every game matters, and starting well was one of our focus points for the year.
“We don’t want to start on the backfoot. It is hard to say now, but obviously, we want to win. We are not going out there just to measure ourselves to be okay with drawing or losing a game.
“There is a big excitement, and we are going to go into this game fighting. It is not different from any other game.”
Along with broadcasting what will be a full-throttle clash between last year’s winners and the runners-up, FS1 will also be exposed to one of the most ferocious home crowds that MLR has to offer.
Well-supported from the off in 2018, along with setting out the measuring stick which Seattle will gauge themselves on for the rest of the year, it is the final piece of the puzzle that paints the picture of a stunning opening weekend.
“That is one of the things you look forward to as a player,” Smith said. “Coming from a long offseason, you are excited to get out there in front of the people and the fans, and they are a big part of our game.
“The enthusiasm from the fans and what they do, it is not always perfect weather, and yet they come out and continue supporting us.
“We owe it to them, and we owe it to everyone that works behind closed doors to make it happen for us.
“We are looking forward to it. Playing at Starfire is definitely an experience on its own.”
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