With two preseason games in the bag against the Seattle Rugby Club and the Hartford Harpooners, the refreshed and significantly younger Seawolves lineup is showing some promising sparks. But there is clearly work to do in bringing this roster of new faces together to play as a team.
First off, the impressive scores against both clubs do not reflect the on-field experience those days; a pro team scoring 50+ points on a club team is not unexpected. However, neither club was a pushover and both teams made the Seawolves work for everything they got. The Seattle Rugby Club is the de facto feeder team for the Seawolves, so these players know each other well and many have worn both SRC and Seawolves jerseys. SRC was able to leverage that experience and knowledge to make the Seawolves pay for every mistake and lapse of focus. MLR referee Scott Green gave a masterclass on refereeing and kept the Seawolves honest by penalizing every mistake.
The Harpooners had to leave their "big boys" at home due to the weather conditions, so local players filled out their lineup, including Seattle Rugby Club favorites Freddy Tafuna and Dion Crowder (apparently playing his last game ever, before retiring from rugby).
The Seawolves/Harpooners match was a defensive curio by both teams. Rarely was the ball carrier able to make more than a meter or two beyond the gain line... but several pick-n-go's from both sides were poorly defended and lead to some of the biggest gains on the ground for both sides. Defense against the run was strong, but cleverness and quickness often found holes in the defense where there shouldn't be holes.
But it was the Seawolves passing and wings that truly were stunning to watch.
Last season pundits often complained that the backs were receiving the ball too flat, and not in motion. That is clearly no longer a problem for the Seawolves. The backs were flying. Runners were receiving the ball at full tilt, and unloading the ball before they hit the ground. During the SRC match, the Seawolves got too much into their own heads and were clearly executing plays in a robotic manner... which lead to the SRC predicting ball movement and foiling those efforts. But once things didn't go to plan for the Seawolves, and the players had to improvise and adapt quickly to chaos... they excelled! It seems the instincts are back.
Ted Lasso fans will remember when Ted asks Coach Beard if there's anything we need to know about the opponents next weekend, and Beard replies "Lotta speed on the outside. LOTTA speed."
That perfectly describes the Seawolves wings, these two games. It didn't matter if it was Futi or Sio or Williams or the beloved Mat Turner; the speed at the wings is simply astonishing.
I'm calling it now: Ina Futi's huge smile and evident joy as he runs in for try after try is going to be THE image of the Seawolves this year.
So that's the good.
The bad - if there is any - is going to become very evident against the Toronto Arrows in the season opener match on February 6th.
Our scrum has been rebuilt, and it is going to take time for them to work together and find their inner Seawall. While the Seawolves scrum was dominant against both the Seattle Rugby Club and the Harpooners, I honestly didn't expect an American club rugby team to have the depth of skill and experience that is needed to compete head-to-head (har har) against an MLR side. The real test will be against a strong MLR scrum, which the Arrows have. (But more on the Arrows in my next post.)
Another potential weakness is the Seawolves medium-level ability to break through in the middle and find a hole to make some yards beyond the gain line. Both SRC and the Harpooners had amazing defenses that prevented runners from making much progress. But again, these are club teams, not professionals. So what happens when the Seawolves come up against a hardened pro defense, and can't break the gain line? I hope that the breadth of our attack - the super-fast wings, the clever backs like Kieran Joyce, the ever indomitable Riekert Hattingh at 8 and Nakai Penny at 7, and James Malcom up front - will allow JP Smith and Reid Watkins the flexibility to move the ball all over the pitch and find each team's weak spot.
Coach Allen Clarke's rebuild of the team into a younger team on long-term contracts has, by all early indications, been wildly successful.
Pate Tuilevuka's impact on the culture and brotherhood has also clearly been effective and the Seawolves look like a TEAM again... not just a bunch of men wearing the same jerseys.
Overall, I am very excited to see the first two games of the season - first against the Toronto Arrows, and second against the Utah Warriors - to see how this side comes together and fares against pro teams with several years of experience under their belts, and lots of returning players and coaching staff.
If the Seawolves can win one (or both!) of these games, I feel that will be the additional boost this team needs to come together as a unit, and put the league on notice again.
And I haven't even mentioned Dan Kriel yet... that man is the size and build of Ross Neal, and looks like he was chiseled from a single giant stone!
Next up, I'll take a look at the Arrows in a pre-game assessment. I may even be bold/dumb enough to make a prediction! Stay tuned...