Written by Joe Harvey
After six months of hard work, the New England Free Jacks have been crowned champions of Major League Rugby for the first time after beating the San Diego Legion 24-25.
It was a hotly contested Championship Final in Chicago, Illinois, which required a late try for Le Roux Malan to hand a win to Scott Mathie’s side the Shield.
Mitch Jacobson scored the game’s opening try for the Free Jacks at SeatGeek Stadium, the New Zealander pouncing on a miscue in the San Diego backline.
It came as Will Hooley’s pass to Ma’a Nonu cannoned off the legendary All Blacks’ shoulder, his countryman, Jacobson, leading the defensive charge and reaping the rewards.
To respond, the Legion turned to another of their New Zealanders to breathe life into the team following a slow start.
Scrum-half, Richard Judd, was the man to do just that, the 31-year-old’s speed at the breakdown putting New England on the back-foot and providing open space for Christian Poideven to dot down.
Having found themselves level-pegged with their opponents once more, the Free Jacks turned to the reliable boot of Jayson Potroz twice in quick succession, piling the pressure on San Diego.
Pressure makes diamonds, and Legion was out to prove that they were by no means out of the race.
To hand Danny Lee’s team a narrow lead as half-time approached, Nate Augspurger registered a tenth try of 2023.
Working in from his wing at the back of a lineout, the USA Eagle ran a line off the ever-dangerous Nonu, the distraction caused by his teammate meaning there were acres of space to exploit and with the speed 33-year-old possesses, it was a simple enough score beneath the posts.
On the stroke of the 40-minute mark, Will Hooley knocked a penalty over to make the scoreline 17-13, the contest far from decided.
In response to being behind at the break, Scott Mathie’s Free Jacks replied in the best way possible.
Turning to the consistently potent Paula Balekana, a charging run from Le Roux Malan ignited an attack for the Eastern Conference champions, the Namibian’s offload to Reece MacDonald only getting the team closer to the whitewash.
It was ultimately as a result of John Poland’s long, flat pass to the touchline to find his Fijian teammate which resulted in a 14th try of 2023 for the wing.
Having looked dangerous the entire game, Augspurger would bag a double on the 60-minute mark. Placing the ball acrobatically in the corner, the wing left unmarked as constant drives toward the line allowing the Southern Californians to retake the lead.
Having been the Free Jacks’ form player, Malan handed his team the lead once again with four minutes on the clock. Scoring four tries in the last two games, the 24-year-old was in on the action again.
Hard carries towards the try line helped New England find good field position, another pass from Poland finding its mark for Malan to power over with opposition players on his back.
Pressed back into their own territory as the clock ticked down, Potroz lashed the ball into the stands after the clock passed 80 and crowned New England as MLR’s winners in 2023.
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