Written by Joe Harvey Photos by John Matthew Harrison
San Diego Legion clinched a playoff spot thanks to their victory over the Rugby New York Ironworkers last weekend.Ever-present for the Southern California side, as he has been for the past six seasons, Nate Augspurger and the Western Conference leaders confirmed that they are one of the teams to beat in 2023.
Richard Judd crossed the try line twice, while Sama Malolo, Faka’osi Pifeleti, Mikey Te’o, and Tomas Aoake all scored their own tries in a dominant outing against the current Major League Rugby champions.
Making the postseason is familiar to Danny Lee’s side. In six seasons, the side has failed to reach knockout rugby just twice, and one of those times came due to the global pandemic shutting the season down.
Beaten in the Western Eliminator by the Seattle Seawolves in 2022, San Diego has set the pace in MLR this season.
Entering Week 16 with an 11-2 record and 59 points, Augspurger and his teammates are in fine form, their trip to the Chicago Hounds this weekend an opportunity to maintain their momentum.
“There has only been one season we missed out on the playoffs, and last year we had to go to Seattle, and we knew how much of a disadvantage that could be,” Augspurger said.
“We definitely put a value on being in the position we are at, being at the top, and we are going to have to keep at the front of the race here as we go down the next couple of weeks.
“It means everything, because a lot of people have put a lot of effort and energy into the club, especially in our offseason last year.
“We made a lot of changes, we recalibrated, it is Danny and the coaching staff’s second year, so everybody wanted to be in full stride this season.
“It is just nice to be in a place where we know we are going to be in postseason games and have the opportunity to potentially host a Western Conference Final in Snapdragon.”
A key member of the Legion since the team’s inception ahead of the inaugural 2018 season, Augspurger has ridden the San Diego wave every step of the way.
From losing the 2019 Championship Final in the game’s final play and then that difficult 2021 campaign, the USA Men’s Eagle has seen it all over this past half a decade.
Coming into 2023, there was the sense that this San Diego side was going to challenge for the Shield from the off.
With depth across the roster, a settled coaching staff moving into its second year, and all the allure of moving to a new home in the form of Snapdragon Stadium, the sense of expectation was palpable.
“The guys stuck around all offseason, they were out in the rugby community, so not only out sowing the seeds for the MLR season, but for Legion as a brand in the community,” Augspurger said.
“We really hit the ground running, and those guys had a great plan in place for us to bond as a team and bond quickly in the preseason.
“San Diego is the most protected season in the world. We are tightly tied with our military, we spent our first preseason camp out in Twentynine Palms as a team, and that was a massive process, and we put a lot of energy and a lot of effort into getting those ducks in a row, for us to have an environment where we could gel and bond and create what we are seeing on the field now.
“We haven’t played our best rugby yet as a team. We definitely don’t feel like we have scratched the surface of our best rugby, but we have shown great character, we have shown a lot of camaraderie, so all of that stuff plays into having a successful season.”
Augspurger’s belief that San Diego has not played their best rugby yet is somewhat stunning.
Having not lost a game since early March and in the midst of a 10-game winning streak, the 33-year-old believes that he and his teammates have not reached their own expectations in recent weeks.
“I am not much for being bound by statistics,” Augspurger said. “If you look at our last three or four games, we have gotten beaten pretty good in the possession area of the game and in the territory area of the game.
“There is definitely room for improvement as a team and we just can’t sit here and say, ‘this is our DNA and this is how we are going to win’.
“We are constantly searching and trying to win. Even this weekend, it was a great home weekend, we had a lot of really good performances, but you could have thought that we lost.
“It is not to hold onto that vibe within the club, but it shows where we are as a club and what we are striving for. We are striving for the best of us, not the mediocre.”
The only other team to have secured a playoff spot is the New England Free Jacks. Leading the Eastern Conference, Scott Mathie’s team has maintained their own good form from a year ago, with San Diego their running mates in this race for the Shield.
With summer approaching and the Championship series, which ends with a showpiece finale at SeatGeek Stadium, coming into view, thoughts naturally turn to that day in early July.
Led by Blair Cowan, with Ma’a Nonu and Marcel Brache offering their support in leading the side, Legion has all the capabilities of bringing a championship back to San Diego.
For Augspurger, who is very much a part of the furniture, the prospect of having that success in red and black is something extremely personal and a point of immense pride.
“It is hard to put into words how much it actually means,” Augspurger said. “From an individual perspective, achieving that goal is probably what I want more than most things in life. At least at this present time.
“Being able to achieve that would be awesome, to be considered as a champion in front of the youth rugby team [Spartan Youth Rugby] that I coach and preach values to on a weekly basis would be special.
“It would impact the community; it would influence and inspire the generation of young rugby players that are coming up.
“What that would do for our academy team, to see a championship team, I think that stuff is just super important, and it is a gift.
“I think the lasting impact that it can have is something that I really think is special. Individually, so much time and effort, and work has gone into the San Diego community. That’s something I would love to be a part of, and say I have it forever.”
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