Seawolves Overcome Slow Start to Defeat SaberCats

03-Jun-2018

Seawolves Overcome Slow Start to Defeat SaberCats

By: Colton Strickler, MLR Correspondent 

Photo: 8th Man Photography

 

 

 

The Seattle Seawolves have proven over the course of Major League Rugby’s inaugural season that they can win matches several different ways.

After routing NOLA Gold a week earlier, the first place Seawolves (5-1) didn’t have the same kind of start against the Houston SaberCats on Saturday night. Despite finding themselves in the middle of a defensive slugfest, the Seawolves escaped the city of Houston with a 20-7 win over the SaberCats (1-5).

While the SaberCats really haven’t had much luck come their way over the course of the season – they’ve only been outscored by 19 points through six games - the well-rounded Seawolves just keep finding new ways to win. Their forward pack made a name for themselves early on, but the Seawolves’ backline has proven to be just as dangerous as the season progresses. When one unit isn’t having the ideal amount of success, the other always seems to step up. Combine that with a nearly impenetrable defensive unit when their backs are against the wall and you have the recipe for a 5-1 record.

“We have a good culture building here in Seattle and to me, a good culture can be a difference maker,” Seattle scrum-half and head coach Phil Mack said in an email after the match. “Our guys are playing for each other and the logo on our shirt which is great.”

 

The SaberCats were well aware of Seattle’s performance just a week earlier, and their game plan in the first half reflected that. They did everything they could to keep Seattle on defense in their own territory. According to the box score, the SaberCats won both the time of possession and the territory battle when it was all said and done, but it was Seattle’s ability to capitalize on the few chances that they did have that ultimately made the difference in the match.

“We put a lot of focus on the simple things that lead to big things,” Mack said. “Our accuracy wasn’t great today but we found a way to take a few chances that popped up.”

 

Houston gave the Seattle defense about as much as they could handle in the first 20 minutes of the match. They forced Seattle into a handful of penalties in their own territory but elected to keep pounding the ball instead of opting for the points. Seattle was able to escape unscathed and had their first real opportunity at points with a penalty kick just before the match’s first water break. Wing Brock Staller pushed his kick wide, and the match remained scoreless during the built-in break.

Staller finally broke the tie in the 26th minute on a penalty kick right in front of the posts when Houston wing Josua Vici was caught with his hands in the ruck.

It seemed like only a matter of time before Houston’s dangerous backline was finally able to cut loose from the grips of Seattle’s defense, but that time wouldn’t come in the first half of the match. Every time Houston managed to make some progress, it was halted by either a penalty or a wild pass. Staller tacked on three more points with another penalty kick to give the Seawolves a 6-0 lead heading into halftime. The SaberCats didn’t have the half they would’ve liked, but the match was far from over.

The first try of the match turned out to be a rather devastating one to the SaberCats. Seawolves wing Peter Tiberio received a switch from fly-half Will Holder on a set piece off a scrum in for a try in the 45th minute of the match. Staller hit the conversion to give the Seawolves a 13-0 lead and took a significant amount of air out of the SaberCats’ sails in the process. For as well as they’d played to that point, they had nothing to show for it.

Just as they’ve done over the course of the season, the Seawolves didn’t let up. Just five minutes later Mack threw a dummy and punched a try into the corner to give the Seawolves a commanding 20-0 lead after Staller’s conversion.

Despite being in a 20-point hole, the SaberCats did what they could to dig themselves out over the next 30 minutes of play. The Seawolves’ lost both hooker Ray Barkwill and flanker Vili Toluta’u to yellow cards in the 58th and 61st minute, and Houston made the most of their two-man advantage just a minute later when Charlie Hewitt took a pick-and-go in for the SaberCats’ first and only try of the match. Fly-half and the MLR’s leading scorer Sam Windsor converted to cut the deficit to 13 points.

It seemed as if the explosive SaberCat backline was about to blow the game open soon after Hewitt’s try.

Still playing with a two-man advantage, Windsor put a kick high into the night sky. Speedy wing Malacchi Esdale contested the ball as a Seawolve attempted to make the catch, and forces Seattle into an error. He scooped the ball, which landed at his feet, and began to jet down the touchline but was just barely forced into touch by Seattle’s inside centre and captain Shalom Suniula. Suniula’s heroics saved the try, and quite possibly the game, as the Sabercats didn’t find their way to points for the rest of the match.

Saturday night’s match was a picture-perfect example of the way that the SaberCats season has gone. In addition to winning the time of possession and territory battles, they forced Seattle into making almost double the tackles that they had to (114-64), won all 11 of their scrums in addition to one defensive scrum against Seattle’s dominant pack, and conceded just as many handling errors (14) and penalties (10) as Seattle did but ultimately didn’t have the points to show for it at the end of the day.

The first place Seawolves picked up four points in the victory to give them 25 points on the season. The seventh-place SaberCats didn’t earn a bonus point in the loss but remain alive in the hunt for the postseason with nine points in hand and two matches to play. They remain just six points out of fourth place and will remain no more than eight points out of a playoff spot depending on the outcome of Sunday’s fixture between the Glendale Raptors and NOLA Gold.

Seattle will look to keep their four-game win streak alive on the road when they take on a surging Austin Elite Rugby side on Friday, June 8 while the SaberCats will try to salvage their season in Glendale against the Raptors at the same time.

“We have two more road games to close out the season so things don’t get easier,” Mack said. “The team know we will be fighting for everything these next two weeks. Our process won’t change though. Stick to what we are doing and continue to play for each other.”

 

 

Scoring

Seattle Seawolves

Tries: Peter Tiberio, Phil Mack

Penalties: Brock Staller (2/4)

Conversions: Brock Staller (2/2)

 

Houston SaberCats

Tries: Charlie Hewitt

Penalties: N/A

Conversions: Sam Windsor (1/1)

 

 

Colton can be reached at colton@usmlr.com.

 


 

 

Article: Colton Strickler. Photos: 8th Man Photography