Free Jacks Clinch Eastern Conference with a Decisive Victory over Toronto
The New England Free Jacks secured a spot in Major League Rugby’s Eastern Conference Final Saturday with a 57-20 battering of the Toronto Arrows at Veteran’s Memorial Stadium.
With the win, the Free Jacks improved to 11-2 on the season and clinched first place in the East with three weeks remaining in the regular season. They’ll host the winner of the 2nd vs. 3rd semifinal on Saturday, July 1 at 6 p.m. ET.
Tickets for that playoff match now are on sale: CLICK HERE TO GET TICKETS NOW!
The Free Jacks also remained undefeated both at home (7-0) and in Eastern Conference play (9-0). They have won seven straight matches and have outscored opponents by an average of 29.6 points per game during their win streak.
Hooker Mills Sanerivi and flanker Slade McDowall each scored two tries for New England, with scrumhalf Kieran McClea, prop Tevita Sole, replacement prop Andrew Quattrin and wings Mitch Wilson and Taniela Filimone all contributing one try apiece.
Flyhalf Jayson Potroz, who entered the weekend ranked second in MLR in points scored, went 6-for-7 on conversion kicks before exiting with an injury in the 60th minute.
In his first start of the season, 2022 MLR MVP Beaudein Waaka facilitated two of the Free Jacks’ tries. He set up Wilson’s 56th-minute score by breaking the line and shrugging off a Toronto tackle before feeding an outside ball to the fleet-footed winger, then created Filimone’s seven minutes later with a perfectly placed cross-field kick. Filimone finished by winning an in-air contest against Arrows fullback Shane O’Leary just over the try line.
Waaka re-signed with the Free Jacks last month after a stint with the Kobelco Steelers in Japan Rugby League One. He started the game at fullback and later shifted to flyhalf — his primary position during his superb 2022 campaign — following Potroz’s injury. He went 1-for-2 on conversion attempts.
Three of New England’s tries (by Sanerivi, Sole and Quattrin) came off lineouts from Toronto’s 5-meter line. On each, multiple Free Jacks backs joined the forward pack in powerful mauls that drove the Arrows into their own try zone. The try by Quattrin, an Ontario native and Arrows alum, closed out the scoring in the 76th minute.
The Free Jacks set MLR records for points scored (80) and margin of victory (75) when they visited Toronto on April 15, but the last-place Arrows made their hosts sweat in this one. Toronto opened the scoring with an early penalty by flyhalf Peter Nelson, trailed by 13 points at halftime and cut New England’s lead to 11 with a 51st-minute try by outside center Taultalatosi Tasi. But the Free Jacks pulled away late for a comfortable victory, closing the match with 26 unanswered points.
Tasi scored both Toronto tries, and Nelson went 2-for-2 on penalties.
Official attendance for Saturday’s match was 3,364, just shy of the record-setting 3,442 fans who turned out for last Sunday’s victory over NOLA Gold. It marked the first time in franchise history that the Free Jacks drew a crowd of 3,000-plus at back-to-back home games.
The Free Jacks will visit Rugby ATL next Friday night (7 p.m. ET) and the Seattle Seawolves the following Sunday (10:30 p.m. ET) before returning home to take on the Houston Sabercats on Sunday, June 18 at 1:30 p.m. ETin their regular-season finale.
Player of the match
The victory featured a stellar effort from McClea, one of three scrumhalfs to start a match for New England this season. The 24-year-old scored the try of the afternoon off a Potroz offload, had a hand in scores by McDowall (6th minute) and Sanerivi (42nd minute), and nearly added a second of his own when he scooped up an errant Toronto pass and sprinted untouched into the try zone only to have the try called back after video review revealed an earlier knock-on.
Play of the match
The Free Jacks held a narrow 7-3 advantage in the 17th minute when Potroz broke though the Toronto line, juked past two defenders and offloaded to a trailing McClea for five points. Though the Arrows threatened at various points in the match, New England’s lead never dipped below double digits after that highlight-reel try.
Moment of the match
The loudest roar from the packed Fort Quincy crowd came when Waaka, in his first major contribution since returning from Japan, set up Wilson’s try. The Free Jacks faithful certainly were happy to see last year’s standout performer back in red, white and blue.