Written by Joe Harvey
Following an exhilarating Eliminator Round, we’re heading into the Conference Finals.
Last weekend, Old Glory DC and two-time Major League Rugby champions, the Seattle Seawolves, claimed their spots in the Conference Finals.
Now traveling to the homes of the New England Free Jacks and San Diego Legion, more exciting action can be expected.
Now playing for a spot in the Championship Final on Saturday, July 8, everything is on the line for the four teams going to battle this weekend.
This week MLR Correspondent, Joe Harvey, spoke to each team as they prepare for their Conference Final.
EASTERN CONFERENCE FINAL NEW ENGLAND FREE JACKS V OLD GLORY DC
When Kurt Baker crossed the try line late in Old Glory DC’s win over the New York Ironworkers, the New Zealander and his teammates knew they would be fighting for another day.
Earning a hard-fought victory over the incumbent MLR champions in New York continued the team’s remarkable rise under Josh Syms.
At the foot of the Eastern Conference a year ago, the team is now competing with the League’s best and becoming more self-assured along the way.
“Obviously, the boys are really happy and pleased with the win,” Niko Jones, DC’s No.8, said.
“It is different for me as I came midway through the season, but getting a feel from the boys that have been here for a few years, just to get to the playoffs was a real achievement.
“To get the win was awesome. I guess we are underdogs, but we are really confident in what we have as a group.
“We have an underdog mentality but a quiet confidence in our own abilities, and that is how we have got a good win against a good New York team.”
The 22-year-old New Zealander and his teammates are understandably excited as they prepare to take on the New England Free Jacks on Saturday evening.
Just a game away from a shot at the Shield, Jones believes there is more to come from him and his teammates.
Photo by Paris Malone
“We are really confident,” Jones said. “At this time of year, you hope to be reaching your best rugby or peaking. We really feel like we are getting better, and we have a lot more to give.
“We take a lot of confidence in knowing you missed a few opportunities (against New York), as you do in every rugby game, and the hope is that you miss less or execute better.”
At this stage of the season last year, the Free Jacks were knocked out of the competition.
Arriving into the postseason with a 14-2 record, there was little in the team’s way as they backed up a dominant 2022 season with another.
A mainstay in Massachusetts is scrum-half John Poland. The diminutive Irishman has often been the barometer for his team in how he sets the tempo for a team hoping to play fast, free-flowing rugby.
“Reflecting on the season, it has been a good one,” Poland said. “What has shown is the depth in our squad, being able to rotate guys in and out without having a drop-off, which I think is the big difference for us between this year and last year.
“Also, playing at home at Fort Quincy; we just love playing there, and we have got bigger and bigger crowd as the year has gone on. It has been unbelievable.
“It is somewhere we are really proud to play and proud to represent our fans, the community of New England.”
Photo by Justin Walker
After the disappointment of a year ago, there is a palpable sense of motivation and drive for the Free Jacks.
It is embodied by Poland, who may be in front of a record crowd once again at Veteran Memorials Stadium, with a team where there is no sense of stopping.
“It is not often you are part of a winning team, so the culture has been unreal,” Poland said. “Honestly, everyone is just buzzing. Can’t wait for it. Last year is almost irrelevant.
“This is the year, now. It is all coming together for us; we just need to go out and take it.”