Written by Joe Harvey
Since the 2023 Major League Rugby season began in Febuary, 12 teams have been battling it out for a chance to play in the Championship Final in Chicago.
After 20 weeks, the San Diego Legion and New England Free Jacks have advanced to the Final and have a shot at lifting the Shield this Saturday at SeatGeek Stadium.
Each side set the pace and became champions of their respective conferences last weekend. On Saturday, they can be crowned the MLR champion of North America.
Ahead of the match, MLR Correspondent Joe Harvey spoke to two New Zealanders who significantly influenced their teams in the 2023 season.
ONE GAME TO GO
Both Richard Judd and Mitch Jacobson arrived in MLR this season. Over the years, the pair had some across one another in the Bunnings NPC back home; both earned Super Rugby contracts and now will contest for a Shield.
Judd has been the heartbeat for San Diego Legion this campaign, the scrum-half setting the pace for the Southern Californians as they have unlocked opposition defenses with their expansive and dynamic attacking style of rugby.
At the time of speaking, it has scarcely been two days since the 31-year-old and his teammates were inspired to victory over the Seattle Seawolves at Snapdragon Stadium, to extend their season by another week.
“The Western Conference is a big milestone, but the job is not done yet,” Judd said. “There is that famous Kobe (Bryant) quote, ‘What’s there to be happy about? Job’s not finished.”
“Super stoked about the final. Like any other team, this was the goal we set in stone in our preseason. But to finally reach it is awesome.”
Jacobson has set the tone in his own way. An abrasive back-row forward, the 27-year-old has been at the center of the New England Free Jacks’ defensive efforts, which has often yielded such positive returns for the side.
Taking on Old Glory DC on Saturday evening, it was a dominant performance from the Free Jacks, who kept the visitors to Veterans Memorial Stadium to only one score.
It is a stark contrast to 12 months ago when New England was knocked out of the competition by the New York Ironworkers. Since then, the team has developed significantly from a dominant 2022 season and making the Championship Final for the first time.
Check out the match highlights.
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“It is a group that has come together from different parts of the world,” Judd said. “There is a core group that have been with San Diego Legion since day one, which is special.
“It is everyone building into everything that has been brought to the table. An awesome group of lads. It is a special group of guys.
“That culture we have built, everyone has bought into it as an awesome place to be. Also, I think we have done so well because of the competition and depth in our squad.
Photo by John Matthew Harrison
“The jersey is not given. It is earned. If you mess up, there is somebody right there to take it. The competition in the team is massive, and it keeps everybody on their toes.
“Whatever position you are playing, there is somebody to fill that spot if you miss a beat.”
Now with just one game left, there’s plenty of the line. Judd says only one thing is on his mind as he and his teammates prepare for the Championship Final.
“Lifting that Shield at the end of the 80 minutes would be the top of the list there,” Judd said. “It’s an awesome occasion, an awesome city, but the best thing to do would be to lift that Shield at the end of the day.”
FREE JACK DELIGHT
When Mitch Jacobson arrived in Quincy, Massachusetts, the Kiwi arrived hot on the heels of the Free Jacks’ fantastic 2022 campaign.
Scott Mathie was named Coach of the Year after his first season in New England, while Beaudein Waaka was Player of the Year, and the team set a new record for the longest winning streak in league history (10) – a record which has been bested by San Diego this year.
Having added the likes of Jacobson, Ben LeSage, Reece MacDonald, Jayson Potroz, Andrew Quattrin, and Conor Keys, this revitalized group have grown to be a far trickier proposition than last year.
Topping the Eastern Conference with a 14-2 record, it was clear that Mathie’s team meant business and will surely have confidence coming into a winner-takes-all clash.
Playing in a first-ever Championship Final, Jacobson believes that anything positive result will come in the areas in which the Free Jacks excel.
“We get a lot of mojo from our defense,” Jacobson said. “We have proven that when we defend really well. We are nice and physical, our game flows from there.
“We might not nail all our attack, but our defense definitely keeps us in the game, and we do really well off turnover attack.
“That comes from just pressuring them when they have got the ball, trying to create dominant tackles, forcing them into mistakes, and capitalizing on those errors.
“I think if we can put San Diego under a bit of pressure, they like to throw the ball around, start to squeeze them. It will go a long way to winning the game.”
Photo by Lisa Li Studios
One of the best-supported teams in MLR, it is unclear how many New England supporters will be flying into Chicago this weekend.
There will be a taste of home thanks to the Dropkick Murphys performing at SeatGeek Stadium, although the result on Saturday will depend on the team sticking to the process which has served them so well up to now.
“You want to be the best in the competition, and you want to have bragging rights at the end of the season.
“There is still a big group here from last year. They topped the table last year and were tipped off in the Conference Final.
“We have gone one better this year, but we don’t want to be the team that is tipped over in the final.”
“We have made the long journey here; we want to finish the job.
“Guys have traveled from all over the world to be here, and I don’t think you make the big trip and the sacrifice to trip at the final hurdle.”
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