Top seeds San Diego Legion gained the advantage of hosting the MLR Championship final against Seattle Seawolves in their home ground of Torero Stadium which proved to be a fitting venue for the final. Torero Stadium was packed primarily with San Diego supporters but credit to the Seattle Seawolves fans who travelled in their droves as they have done all season.
The opening 15 minutes were an extremely cagey affair with both teams employing their kicking strategy in an attempt to gain field position. Neither team looked like scoring a try but on the 6th minute Joe Pietersen of the San Diego Legion opened the scoring as he slotted a penalty to make it 3-0.
Ten minutes later on the 16th minute, Italian international Josh Furno thought he had scored his second try in as many outings for the Legion when he drove over the line, only to be held up with incredible scramble defence from the Seawolves.
The Legion struck again on the twenty mark through the boot of Pietersen as they Seawolves center George Barton was pinged for not rolling away. The score was 6-0 to the Legion going into the first hydration break.
Barton doing damage
The Seawolves burst into life within the first minute of the restart. A fantastic initial break by Canadian center George Barton set the Seawolves up in a great position in try scoring territory. Hooker Stephan Coetzee then picked and drove over the line to swing the momentum in the Seawolves favor. Brock Staller slotted the conversion to give the Seawolves the lead and make the score 7-6 to the Seawolves after 22 minutes.
Barton had an incredibly industrious afternoon for the Seawolves, not only as a constructive second receiver in contact but also proving the be a valuable exit strategy for the Seawolves defence through his ball carrying.
In what was a very efficient period for the Seawolves, they bagged another try through JP Smith. An intelligent short lineout saw the scrum-half gather the ball, fend off the oncoming Legion defender, before showing great pace to beat his opposite number and touch down. There were question marks as to whether the ball went the required five metres in the lineout but once the officials cleared this, the well worked training ground move was awarded the try. With that, the Seawolves had flipped the game on its head and the score was now 14-6 to the Seawolves after 30 minutes.
Minutes before half time, the Legion were fortunate their luck did not go from bad to worse when winger Conor Kearns attempted to gather his garryowen instead taking the Seawolves out-half Ben Cima out in mid air. Fortunately Cima was unfazed and the referee took no further action other than a Seawolves penalty.
The intensity of the game was evident right from the kick off and the second half was no different with Legion fullback Tai Enosa having to leave the field after receiving a heavy knock. Enosa had to be substituted off at that stage but this almost seemed to spur the Legion on as they noticeably upped gears with the Legion pack destroyed the Seawolves scrum moments later.
The Legion kept the pressure on and were unlucky not to score in the corner following sustained pressure, only for Ryan Matyas to knock on close to the line.
The Legion kept the pressure on and on the 51st minute they got their just reward. Nate Augspurger who had a great game channeled his inner George Gregan with a reverse pass to put du Plessis through the gap. This had the Seawolves defence on the back foot which allowed the Legion to spray the ball through the backs hands to send Nick Boyer over the try line in the corner. Pietersen nailed a difficult kick to make it a one point game at 13-14 to the Seawolves.
The Legion were not finished disrupting the Seawolves defence and on the 64th minute after a terrific rolling maul, number 8 Jordan Manihera managed to touch the ball down against the base of the post to score, giving the Legion a six point lead at 20-14.
The incredible character of this Seawolves side shows why they are back to back MLR champions. The Seawolves have the ability to seize even the slightest of opportunities and turn it into something. This was no more evident than on the 71st minute when the Legion defence switched off, Stephan Coetzee did not. Coetzee spotted the gap and sprinted through it gaining valuable metres to set the Seawolves up in a great scoring position. The Seawolves pack took over with number 8 Riekert Hattingh being the man to drive over and score the try.
The final 10 minutes of this game were befitting of such an exciting MLR season and in true Joe Pietersen fashion, he added to the drama. On the 77th minute, Pietersen dropped back into the pocket to slot a drop goal give the Legion a four point lead at 23-19 going into the final 3 minutes of the game. The Seawolves now needed a try to win the game.
The Seawolves threw everything they had at San Diego but given the Legion defence and impeccable game management they had a task on their hands. The Seawolves caught a break when 2 of the Legion defenders were pinged for a high tackle on Brock Staller as he sprinted down the wing.
The Seawolves kicked to the corner.
What happened next typifies the Seawolves character. A rolling maul in which almost 1 to 15 were involved resulted in the Seawolves barrelling over the line to clinch the game and with it secure back to back MLR titles.