At the conclusion of the 2021 Major League Rugby season only the Los Angeles Giltinis were left standing. Finishing as regular season champs with a record of 12-4, they were left to compete against the best team in the Eastern Conference and the second best record overall, Rugby ATL. LA ran up, around, through, and over Atlanta for most of the game, and in doing so they became the first team in MLR history to win the regular season and the championship, and they also became the first team in MLR’s history to win the title that wasn’t the Seattle Seawolves.
The first 20 minutes were uneventful, with a total score of 3-3. Lots of slow moving plays and pod crashes made this look like a would-be defensive battle. That was until flyhalf Matt Giteau make a defender miss a tackle and offloaded a beautiful ball to John Ryberg, who then accelerated to top speed immediately and took it from roughly 40 meters out to the house. After the kick it became a 10-3 game in favor of LA.
Less than two minutes later, Giteau realized another opportunity. Backed at his own 22 and recognizing the penalty advantage, Giteau kicked a chip shot that bounced once and landed perfectly into his own teammate. Atlanta started to make contact with the runner around the 5 meter line, and from there Ryberg was ready for the offload again to punch it in for the try.
Right before halftime Atlanta was able to get a penalty and then kick it out of bounds just short of the Giltini’s goalline. At the lineout Atlanta secured the ball, and after a stalemate maul for just a moment, they pushed it in and were able to breathe a little before the break. Once the conversion kick went through the uprights it was a 15-10 game in LA’s favor.
From there the gameplan went downhill for Atlanta. They couldn’t get anything going offensively while LA kept chipping away with field goals, scoring three of them in the second half. There was only one try in the second half, another maul but by LA this time, that signalled the beating that Atlanta was taking for pretty much everything after the 20 minute mark. Before long it was 31-10, but Atlanta put up a meaningless try and conversion late to make it look like a more respectable 31-17.
More than 7,000 fans were in attendance, supposedly the most for any LA Giltini’s game this season and MLR looks like the foundation for success is actually present. Since its inaugural season, and despite the cancellation of the 2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, MLR has expanded the number of teams in the league from 7 initially to 12 currently, with plans for the Dallas Jackals to join the 2022 season. Attendance was up from years prior and there are more partnerships (American Airlines for example) that look good for its financial sustainability.
MLR should be able to continue the momentum into next season. A broadcasting contract with CBS Sports has helped it so far, and MLR has improved every year. Despite the challenges of rugby in America, from all the pro American leagues that came before MLR, to general indifference from the American public, to surviving more than one year (something the AAF failed to do) despite the pandemic (of which the XFL was victim), it looks like it’s here to stay.
It’s a miracle for any new pro league to make it even a full season, and MLR has done that three times in its four seasons, albeit with some minor hiccups. Smooth sailing looks like it’s on the table for MLR’s fifth season, and the league will only get better and more popular with time. Get in on it early and claim your status as an official sports hipster.