Free Jacks top Legion in championship thriller to claim first MLR title
BRIDGEVIEW, Ill. — The Major League Rugby Shield now resides in Fort Quincy.
The New England Free Jacks capped a dream season with the franchise’s first league title, defeating the San Diego Legion 25-24 on Saturday in the 2023 MLR Championship Final at SeatGeek Stadium in suburban Chicago.
Inside center La Roux Malan scored the deciding try for the Free Jacks in the 77th minute, capping an instant classic between MLR’s unquestioned top two sides that featured four lead changes and drama from start to finish.
San Diego, the betting favorite, had won 16 times in 17 matches entering Saturday. Fourteen of those victories were by double digits, and nine were by 20 points or more, including each of the last five. New England, meanwhile, had won a franchise-record 15 of its 17 matches — 11 by double digits and seven by 20-plus. Among those: a 80-5 waxing of Toronto and a 50-3 rout over NOLA.
During the regular season, the Free Jacks led MLR with a league-record 556 points scored. The Legion were a close second with 554. New England also topped the league in points allowed (273) and point differential (plus-283). San Diego? Runner-up in both (285; plus-269). The third-ranked club in scoring margin (Seattle, plus-161) trailed both conference champs by more than 100 points.
San Diego owned a slim edge in tries scored (81) and standings points (74), with New England at 80 and 68, respectively. Neither team had lost since March.
It was no surprise, then, that Saturday’s pulse-pounding finale was tight throughout, with neither team leading by more than seven points at any stage.
A mistake by the Final’s most decorated player allowed the Free Jacks to open the scoring just four minutes in. San Diego inside center and New Zealand All Blacks legend Ma’a Nonu fumbled a routine pass inside the Legion 22, creating a chance for a charging Mitch Jacobson. The New England flanker, who assumed team captaincy following an early-season injury to Josh Larsen, recovered the bouncing ball and dove in for the game’s first try. Jayson Potroz’s successful conversion gave the Free Jacks an early 7-0 advantage.
San Diego responded six minutes later with an equalizing try by flanker Christian Poidevin, but successful Potroz penalties in the 14th and 18th minutes put New England back in the lead. Potroz’s boot was a major asset for the Free Jacks throughout the season as the 31-year-old flyhalf led all of MLR in points scored.
The Legion then pulled ahead for the first time when wing Nate Augspurger broke through the line off a San Diego lineout and raced 30 meters for a try. The ensuing conversion by fellow U.S. international Will Hooley put the West champs up 14-13.
New England threatened once more late in the first half off a counterattack initiated by scrumhalf John Poland, but a penalty near the San Diego try line foiled the scoring chance. Hooley added a penalty kick at the first-half buzzer to make it 17-13 Legion after 40 minutes.
The Free Jacks then opened the second half the same way they began the first: by finding the try zone within the first five minutes. Malan sliced through San Diego’s defensive line and flipped a slick backhanded offload to flanker Joe Johnston as he fell to the turf. Fullback Reece MacDonald brought New England to within meters of the Legion try line, and a long-range pass from Poland off the ensuing breakdown set up wing Paula Balekana for a highlight-reel try in the left corner. Patroz’s conversion put the Free Jacks back ahead, 20-17.
No MLR player scored more tries this season than Balekana, who finished with 15 in a sensational campaign.
Jacobson had a chance to extend New England’s lead minutes later following big carries by MacDonald and bruising No. 8 Wian Conradie, but San Diego’s defense held him up in the try zone. The Legion capitalized on that near miss, getting a second try from Augspurger in the 61st minute to reclaim the lead at 24-20. Hooley suffered an injury while kicking the conversion, however, and replacement Andrew Henderson missed a penalty kick five minutes later that would have stretched San Diego’s lead to seven.
That miss proved pivotal. With less than seven minutes remaining, New England controlled possession for more than a dozen phases deep in San Diego territory before Poland shot a pass to Malan, who powered through attempted tackles by Augspurger and Richard Judd to score the game-winning try.
San Diego made one final charge in the closing minutes, but a knock-on gave the Free Jacks a scrum, and Potroz kicked to touch to seal a victory that will be remembered in New England for years to come.
Player of the match
Potroz, whose kicking, kick coverage and occasional big-play ball-carrying steered and steadied the Free Jacks.
Play of the match
Malan’s game-winner, which came after several minutes of sustained Free Jacks position at the match’s most critical juncture.
Moment of the match
Potroz booting the ball into the SeatGeek Stadium stands to officially deliver New England its first rugby championship.