No country for mixing rugby and biking

The idea was to ride my bike across Montana and North Dakota and keep track of the Seattle Seawolves rugby team at the same time.

It was an idea doomed to fail.

The Seawolves vs. Austin Elite game on Saturday, June 9, was not carried on TV networks available in Jordan, MT, (pop. 386). Especially since the game was played on Friday, June 8, which shows you how out of touch I was after four days of bike riding (246 miles). I heard it was a nail-biter with Seattle winning, 20-19.

And Seawolves vs. Glendale Raptors on Saturday, June 16, while in Lisbon, ND, (pop. 2,124)? Forget it. Yes, really forget it. Seattle lost 33-11.

But I did get to see the U.S. team beat Scotland, 30-29, which bodes well for the national team going forward. Maybe a win or two in the 2019 Rugby World Cup? That would be welcome across the land – even in Jordan and Lisbon, should they hear of it.

About this bike ride: It was not my idea. My sister gets credit/blame for that. It’s her goal/obsession to ride across all of the lower 48 states. We did Iowa and Nevada in 2017. Arkansas, North Dakota and the rest of Montana were on tap for 2018. I promised to ride across Arkansas with her, but our plans fell apart due to other priorities.

I said I would be support and gear/guidance (SAG) for her on Montana/North Dakota. But when her riding partner backed out, what kind of brother would I be if I left her pedaling alone somewhere between Great Falls, MT, and Fargo, ND?

KT at truck
Kathy preparing lunch the first day at the SAG wagon.

SAG duties fell to the spouses, and Kathy and Don can never be thanked enough.

JB and Don
With Don along the way in Napoleon, North Dakota.

It all started on June 4 when Kathy and I started the drive from Seattle. . .

 

 

Speaking strictly as a fan, I’m enthralled

I didn’t cover the Seattle Seawolves game today as a journalist, so I feel like I can ignore all that stuff about no cheering in the press box. Which leads me to say that I love it when my team scores a converted try 56 seconds into the game after Vili Toluta’u jumped up to take the opening kickoff from the arms of the waiting New Orleans forward. Brock Staller and Will Holder were steady all day in kicking conversions and penalties.

I’m even happier when my team goes up 21-0 before 10 minutes into the game.

Nervous when New Orleans scores twice within three minutes before the half and then gets the first score of the second half to come within a try of the Seawolves: 31-26.

And so ended the New Orleans scoring for the day, but not the Seawolves’, who added another penalty, three tries and three conversions to take the win, 55-26.

I didn’t take any photographs today, but I did talk to Peter Tiberio, who was bloodied in last week’s victory over the Utah Warriors. I tweeted a photograph of that last week and was surprised to see him scarless after the game today while signing autographs for future rugby players and chatting to fans. Last week’s cut took eight stitches to close, he said, and was wrapped for today’s game. Give that doc kudos for keeping the lads pretty.

Tiberio
Peter Tiberio has healed from his head injury sustained against Utah last week.

The win today puts the Seawolves at the top of the standings over the Glendale Raptors, who did not play. The Seattle team will be in Texas for the next two weekends, against Houston next week and then Austin the following weekend. The regular season comes to an end on June 16 when the Seawolves play Glendale in Colorado, a game that could decide the league winner and could be a preview of playoff action on June 30 (in Glendale) for the semis and July 7 (in San Diego) for the finals.

Wherever the season goes from here, the four home games ended on a high note today, and I can’t wait for the return of the Seawolves at Starfire (or CenturyLink) in 2019.

Hoping my enthusiasm hasn’t destroyed anyone’s beliefs in my ability to be an objective journalist. When I’m on the clock, these guys are just another team (and they should have beat Utah, 41- 22, instead of 41-32, but I digress). Not on the clock? Hey, I’m human and a forever rugby fan.

 

 

 

Poor tackling? Or great running?

Peter Steinberg, CBS Sports rugby commentator, insisted during the Seattle Seawolves game against the New Orleans Gold May 12 that poor tackling on the part of the southern team led to their 31-29 defeat.

And 100 percent perfect tackling would mean no tries scored and certain victory — or nothing worse than a 0-0 tie. But poor tackling can have two causes. The defenders might be slow, weak or easily got around, as Steinberg seemed to imply about NOLA. But some players are just hard to tackle. Some players like William Rasileka, Shalom Suniula, Will Holder, Matt Turner, Peter Tiberio, Peter Smith. Those Seawolves backs cut up the NOLA defense to combine for four tries. Smith was the perfect kicker, connecting on all four conversions and a penalty. (Steinberg also rightfully pointed out that NOLA could have tied the game with one more successfully kicked conversion or won if one of their missed penalty kicks had gone through.)

None of those Seattle tries would have been scored if NOLA tacklers had been more proficient, but the quick steps, deceptive passes and well executed plays of the Seattle backs made the NOLA task daunting.

And Seattle’s game is an exciting one to watch. Major League Rugby liked this score enough to name it the try of the week:

But for my money, the Seattle movement that starts at 2:00 in the video below is a lot more fun to watch:

On Sunday, the Seawolves face the Utah Warriors at sold-out Starfire Stadium back home in Tukwila. (5:30 PDT)

The Seawolves had to hang on to the very end to get the win against NOLA, and from the MLR game report on Utah’s win last week over Austin, it sounds like Seattle better be prepared to hang around to the end again if they want a victory. Austin’s Hanco Germishuys summed it up this way: “It just came down to the end. At the end Utah had more pace than us, more passion to get that win. In the second half we had that 20 minutes but then we started falling off.”

For Seattle on Sunday, there can be no falling off.

Seawolves 1/3 of week’s all-league team

Let’s start with Vili Toluta’u, named to this week’s Major League Rugby’s all league team. In Saturday’s game, the senior at Central Washington University popped out of the Glendale Raptor’s maul with the ball several times, contrary to the way things usually happen when a team settles in to drive down the field and instead gets a hard-running Hawaiian champagne cork flying at the scrum half. Makes him all-league open side flanker for the week.

Ray Barkwill and Tim Metcher take two of the three spots in this week’s all-league front row. The Canadian hooker and Australian prop are like stakes in the ground in the set scrums, holding firm until a second row like Taylor Krumrei, a University of Oregon alum, puts them in motion, driving low and forward. Taylor made the all-league team for the week, and Olive Kilifi could have filled out that other front row spot as far as I’m concerned. He’s a solid block of muscle and experience. (And I apologize for calling him Olive like the green things in a glass jar. I’m told by a person in the stands who says he knows Kilifi’s cousin that it is pronouced O-leave-eh.)

Four of the eight forwards on the all-league week’s team from Seattle. Add to that William Rasileka out in the backs. The Fijian played for his national side in 15s and 7s and came to Seattle in 2011 to play for Old Puget Sound Beach and then the Seattle Saracens. Nice to have him still in town, steady in defense and dangerous with the ball in hand.

With five of the 15 all-league roster coming from the Seawolves, it does raise the question: Why didn’t they win on Saturday?

That’s probably best answered by looking at the rest of the week’s rep side. There you will find the names of Harley Davidson (hooray for his parents if they decided on Harley) at wing and Maximo De Achaval (kudos to his parents as well) at fullback. Davidson had the second half try that put the Raptors up 16-3.

The answer to the question is complete when you look at the player of the week (who mysteriously does not get named onto the team of the week — what am I missing?). Here’s what the league said in naming the week’s top player:

“Glendale’s Zach Fenoglio earned Player of the Week honors. Fenoglio showed off tremendous versatility by starting the match at flanker and finishing at hooker. The Denver native converted a crucial try to help lift the Raptors over the Seattle Seawolves and start the season 2-0.”

Add in two penalty kicks from Glendale’s Will Magie, strong Raptor defense and lots of Seawolves handling mistakes, and you’ve got your answer.

Still, they persisted, scoring as time ran out. That try brought the Seawolves within seven points of Glendale (19-15), close enough for a bonus point in the standings (also awarded to a team that scores four tries in a game). That could be a crucial difference come playoff time (June 30 and July 7).

Seawolves’ win seemed possible, but no

DefenseWhen the score was 3-16 favor of the Glendale Raptors, the Seattle Seawolves had a chance to come back Saturday, April 28, and win their second game of their inaugural Major League Rugby professional season.

Just two tries and two conversions, and they would have a one point win, 17-16.

Wouldn’t that be exciting?

And Vili Toluta’u obliged with a second-half try and Brock Staller hit the conversion for a 10-16 score. One more try, one more conversion and the deed would be done.

Lineout.jpgIt would be a reversal of how things had gone for most of the game for the Seawolves. The Glendale defense kept the Seattle backs penned up, and Seattle’s speedsters resorted to more kicks than the crowd would have liked. But when playing in your own end, kicking is usually the best way out of trouble. The Seattle running game mostly ended with the rain-slicked ball slipping through Seawolves’ hands (flippers?).

Two penalty kicks by Will Magie of the Raptors and a try by Zach Fenoglio had the Colorado team up 11-0 before Staller opened Seawolves’ scoring right before half with a penalty kick.

In the second half, the man with the best name in American pro rugby, Harley Davidson, added five with his try to get the game to that hopeful moment for the Seawolves.

CBS.jpg
Seawolves vs. Raptors was the game of the week on CBS Sports Network, and it was on the TV in the warm and dry snack bar in the Starfire complex. But sitting in the rain is the real deal, right? Right?

But after the try by Toluta’u, who had been all over the field all night on defense and with the ball, Magie added another penalty kick that doused Seattle hopes like the heavy falling rain.

A try at the final whistle by George Barton closed the scoring and the game at 19-15 for Glendale.

The Seawolves have a bye next week and then are at New Orleans on May 12. On May 20, they return to Starfire Stadium in Tukwila to face the Utah Warriors and then the New Orleans Gold at home on May 27.

Two of my favorite things from the game Saturday: Just before the singing of the Star Spangled Banner, a V of geese flew over the stadium right over the color guard, a perfect flyover for the Pacific Northwest.

I also liked that the crowd sang the national anthem. That’s the way it should be done instead of having some professional do it while the crowd waits to see if the singer can hit the high notes at the end. The person beside me in the stands said our version Saturday sounded like a round with one side of the field coming in behind the other side, but hey, we raised our voices instead of shuffling from one leg to the other.

Scrum.jpg

Glendale to face Seawolves without 2 of their best

Scrum
The Seawolves’ scrum is close to scoring a try and all the San Diego Legion could do was collapse and wheel, prompting the referee to award Seattle a penalty try, one of three last Saturday.

When the Glendale, Colo., Raptors show up at Starfire Stadium to face the Seattle Seawolves this Saturday (April 28), they’ll be without two of their dominant players.

Ben Landry, second row, and Connor Cook, wing forward, have both been suspended for three weeks by Major League Rugby. Both Landry and Cook received red cards last Saturday for dump tackling – upending a player and driving him head first into the ground – during the Raptors’ 41-26 win over the Austin Elite.

Both Landry and Cook had scored tries before they were ordered out of the game, not to be replaced.

Landry has played for the U.S. national team, and when his MLR season ends, he’ll head off to England to play for the Ealing Trailfinders.

Cook played for the Waimea Rugby Club in Hawaii, for Arkansas State University and might have the best dreadlocks in rugby.

While not having these two players on the field might seem advantage Seawolves, Seattle fans might be wise to hold their glee in check. Despite losing Landry, Cook and then another player who received a yellow card at 73:35, the Raptors were able to prevent the Elite from scoring. Playing 12 men to 15 and keeping the 15 out of the try zone for almost 10 minutes indicates some defensive prowess.

Reikert
Riekert Hattingh

The Seawolves’ lineup will probably be missing Riekert Hattingh this week. He took a blow to the head during the first half of the 39-23 win over the San Diego Legion last week that left him staggering to the sideline with the help of medical staff. Before that, he had startled the San Diego backs and thrilled Seattle fans when he burst out the back of a San Diego ruck that seemed to have the ball well protected and ran 50 yards up the field before passing to his backs. He’s a thrill to watch, but safety says to keep him out for the week.

The Seawolves come into Saturday’s game riding a positive wave of good tidings. They were named the team of the week by Major League Rugby. Both Seawolves’ props, Kellen Gordon and Tim Metcher, made the league’s rep side of the week as did fullback Matt Turner. Player coach Phil Mack didn’t make the team of the week but he was named player of the week.

How does that happen?

Nonetheless, the league had nice things to say about Mack, who took over head coaching duties only a couple of weeks before the first game:

“Mack’s duties over the past few weeks have increased,” the league said. “Stepping into the lead coaching role, he built a game plan based around the Seawolves strength in the scrum. His agility and ball speed out of the ruck put the ball in the hands of his fly-half Will Holder for quick-play. Mack’s timely box kicks took the pressure off the Seawolves when they were within their own half.”

Seawolves’ management says the fan experience will be even better this week at Starfire. Twice as many beer and wine stands. More bathrooms. Another food truck. Lines on the field made more visible (they’ll be the blue ones).

But they promise the sunshine from last week?

Gates open at 5:30, and there is a curtain raiser between two youth clubs: Budd Bay vs. Liberty Club.

The game is sold out, but it’s the game of the week on CBS Sports Network. Kickoff and broadcast at 7:30 p.m.

(See last week’s game coverage in The Seattle Times.)

Seawall
Eric Duechle, Seawolves’ back row, called the Seattle defense “the Seawall,” which did not break in the game against San Diego. The Seawall appears to be built on numbers. Here the Seawolves have four men at the tackle.

Pro rugby arrives in Seattle Sunday

Predicting the outcome of a game between two rugby teams in their first regular- season pro games in a new league’s first ever weekend of competition is a foolhardy task to attempt, something that would only occur in the mind of a journalist restless on the night before the game.

I plead guilty. Here goes:

The Seattle Seawolves have sold out Starfire Stadium in Tukwila for their game Sunday at 5 p.m. against the San Diego Legion. For Seattle, it’s the first pro rugby ever played in the city.

San Diego had a taste of Pro Rugby – in capital letters as a proper name – in 2016 when that effort had a one-year existence. The San Diego Breakers were part of that league, and Matt Hawkins, who has been a highly visible part of American rugby for more than a decade, was an assistant coach. He reappears in the Legion organization as the general manager. Anyone who has seen Hawkins play knows he is likely to have a hard-nosed team at Starfire on Sunday.

It’s hard to get a sense of the Legion’s roster from the team web site, which is by far the worst in Major League Rugby, but from reading the match reports of their pre-season games, some names stand out. Cam Dolan at Number 8 appears to be a forward who can run in the open and score. Nate Augspurger at scrum half, Ben Cima at center and Taku Ngwenya on the wing are described as backline “firepower.” Tadhg Leader, the place kicker, looks steady. The Legion beat Austin Elite, 32-24, and lost 33-17 to the Houston SaberCats, led by former Seattle Saracen coach Justin Fitzpatrick.

Seattle comes into game under player-coach Phil Mack, known up north as “The Little Magician.” He took over coaching duties after Tony Healy, also from Canada, ran into visa troubles. Whether three weeks running the team has been enough time for Mack to mold a winner gets put to the test Sunday. Pre-season competition has been limited to a 47-7 trashing of the Prairie Wolf Pack, apparently a team of masochists out of Calgary as they traveled on to an 80-12 drubbing Friday at the hands, feet, shoulders and whatever else MLR’s Utah Warriors chose to apply to the Pack’s backsides.

A track meet like the Seawolves’ win over the Wolf Pack has the benefit of showing what every move, play and stratagem looks like in perfect execution against little defense. It has the disadvantage of lacking the kind of competition that reveals what happens when opponents disrupt perfection and your team must pick up the pieces and innovate – the real beauty of rugby.

Asked to make a prediction about Sunday’s game, Seawolves co-owner and operator Shane Skinner was at his political best: “The guys have trained incredibly hard so I predict they are going to put out their best possible effort – 100% confident on that!”

Having seen the Seawolves at practice, I know Shane is correct. They are a hard-working bunch. Shane sets a good example that even a journalist should follow:

I predict both teams will play at full speed and will not disappoint the 3,500 plus fans at Starfire on Sunday. See you there.

 

Seawolves preview and rugby primer at https://www.seattletimes.com/sports/other-sports/rugby-anyone-seattle-seawolves-begin-play-in-new-pro-sports-league/

 

 

And now for the Rugby World Cup disappointments

The U.S. against Samoa. Are the Eagles condemned forever to be the team of the future?
The U.S. against Samoa. Are the Eagles condemned forever to be the team of the future?

There’s a flip side to the best rugby matches in Rugby World Cup 2015, and that’s the games that disappointed. Not surprisingly, all of those are the matches that involved the United States team — four losses and no bonus points in the standings, which means they never came within seven points of an opponent and they never scored four tries in a game.

The quickest way to list the disappointments would probably be to look at the margin between winner and the United States, and that would bring the South Africa game right to the top: 64-0 with the Springboks scoring 50 of those in the second half.

Next would come the Scotland game, a loss by 23 points, then Japan (10 points) and Samoa (nine points).

But did anyone expect the U.S. team to beat South Africa, even after Japan knocked them off the opening weekend? I didn’t. Maybe not lose by 64 points, but a win against the Springboks ranged beyond even my open optimism.

Samoa and Japan seemed the games that the U.S. could win, but giving up 15 points on penalties against Samoa doomed that chance of victory. More penalties and poor defense sunk the chance of a win against Japan.

So given my expectations, here’s how I would list those games from the most disappointing to the least:

Samoa

Japan

Scotland

South Africa

Stuart Barnes, writing in The London Times, listed his first to worst teams and somehow the U.S. made it up from the bottom to No. 15, but I suspect his disappointment in England’s performance and a general dislike of things French put those two teams below the U.S. along with Canada, Tonga and Samoa.

What Barnes said about U.S. rang true: “They are always touted as the coming team but seem to be in no great hurry and rarely looked like a cohesive team in their sorry sequence of defeats.”

That statement reminds me of a story I did back in the 1960s while working for the Associated Press. The story was about transportation systems and what might be coming in the cities of Ohio, where I worked. I asked a Cincinnati transportation planner about the prospect of monorail as an answer to moving people efficiently. His answer: “Monorail is the transportation of the future and always will be.”

Right now that looks like the fate of U.S. rugby: The world’s forever future team.

Australia vs. Scotland the match of the RWC tournament

NZ with ball
Off they go again. The New Zealand All Blacks cut through the Australia defense in the Rugby World Cup Final. One thing that struck me as I edited my photos from this match: Richie McCaw, the New Zealand captain, is in almost all of them, always around the ball. He is reaching over an Aussie player in this picture, looking up at the ball carrier.

Before we left London, Kathy asked if going to the Rugby World Cup measured up to all my expectations — a question that surprised me since I thought the giddy smile on my face for eight weeks made my delight obvious.

Let me count the way, m’lady. Thirteen international rugby matches. Theater seats for London and Stratford-upon-Avon shows. Hiking the hills, punting the river, browsing through every sort of attraction covering history, art, religion, architecture and others realms of human achievement.

Yes, a definite success and then some.

Then we decided over a restaurant meal to break it down: list the top five favorite things we did while in England. We both ticked off five before the waiter got the first glass of water to the table. We were approaching more than 10 favorites apiece before our order was taken.

In keeping within the rules of naming only five, I tried to do categories, so that one of my five choices was “the rugby games,” another was “Oxford colleges,” another “plays.” Cheater, cheater, Kathy protested.

My answer to this was to offer to list five choices within each category, and of course I started with the rugby games I saw. My five favorites:

  1. Scotland vs. Australia in the quarter final: If you take the measure of excitement generated in a game by how many times the lead changes, this match goes right to the top of the list. Four lead changes. Australia took an early lead, but Scotland took over for most of the first half and was ahead by one point at the break, 16-15. The teams were never more than eight points apart and most of the time were within three points of each other. Australia got up early in the second half until Scotland climbed back up to a 34-32 lead with under seven minutes to go in the game. Then came the bad call from the ref, a three-point penalty kick by Australia with less than two minutes left and that was the end of the tournament for Scotland.
  2. New Zealand vs. Australia in the final: How can the culminating game of the tournament not be No. 1 on this list? It probably would be if the Scotland-Australia match hadn’t been one that had me jumping out of my seat and endangering my laptop on the media table in front of me. The final threatened to be a boring, let’s-play-it-safe, penalty- kicking affair through most of the first half. It wasn’t until the clock had ticked off more than 38 minutes that New Zealand put together a thriller try from the back of a loose ruck with Aaron Smith getting two touches and then skipping a pass to “he’s everywhere!” Richie McCaw, who made one more pass to put Nehe Milner-Skudder in for the score. The All Blacks got up 21-3 and it was starting to look like a rout until Australia put together two converted tries and pulled within four points. All Black Dan Carter stomped on the Aussie momentum with a drop goal at 69 minutes. Every winning team needs a player who can perform this score-from-anywhere-inside-the-50 tactic. Nothing is so soul-killing for a team to be scored against this way. And Carter wasn’t done. He added a penalty kick at 73 minutes and all that was left to complete the game was a mishandle by Australia, kicked ahead by Ben Smith and a bounce up into the hands of Beauden Barrett for one more New Zealand score and a conversion by Carter. 34-17 All Blacks.
  3. The other quarterfinal — South Africa vs. Wales: Another close one. Most of the scoring came on penalty kicks, but the tries turned the fortunes of the game for both Wales and the Republic of South Africa. It went like this: 3-0 RSA, 6-0 RSA, 6-3 RSA, 9-3 RSA, 10-9 Wales (nothing like seven points from a converted try to get you back in the game), 12-10 RSA, 13-12 Wales (drop goal by Dan Biggar gave the Welsh the halftime lead), 16-12 Wales, 16-15 Wales, 18-16 RSA, 19-18 Wales, 23-19 RSA (nothing like five points from a try to get you the win). RSA 23, Wales 19.
  4. Canada vs. Italy: Canada got up 10-0 to start the game, which included a try by DTH van der Merwe, who scored in all four of Canada’s losses. Owen Slot, chief rugby correspondent for The London Times, named him to his all-tournament team this week saying “his try-a-game tally showed consistency and the try he started and finished against Italy was outstanding.” Yeah-yeah, as the English say when in agreement. Too bad Canada couldn’t finish one more of some great movements. That would have given them at least a tie. But Italy won, 23-18.
  5. Canada vs. Romania: Canada again? Yep. For an exciting game, it’s hard to beat a 15-point comeback. Just too bad that it was Romania coming back for a 17-15 win. You can’t look away from the train wreck and you don’t want it to happen, but you have say afterwards that it was exciting.

    The All Blacks spread the field in defense, and Australia seldom got through it.
    The All Blacks spread the field in defense, and Australia seldom got through it. And once again, McCaw is right there, in front of the tackle being made by Brodie Retallick (No. 4)