Wing Paula Balekana (ball in hand) looks to offload the ball to scrum half, John Poland (right)

Wing Paula Balekana scored two of New England’s five tries, with outside center Ben Lesage, scrumhalf John Poland and replacement flanker Cam Davidowicz notching one try apiece. The score by Davidowicz, a Haverhill, Mass., native in his second season with the Free Jacks, gave New England a lead in the 68th minute that it would not relinquish.

Flyhalf Jayson Potroz contributed nine points with his boot, kicking three conversions and one penalty for the Free Jacks. His 73rd-minute penalty kick gave New England a 10-point advantage and allowed it to hold off a late Old Glory charge. The visitors scored a try in the final minute but could not close the gap.

The crowd of 3,353 that turned out for the Free Jacks’ 2023 home opener was the largest in franchise history.

A packed Veterans Memorial Stadium filled with 3,353 fans cheering on the Free Jacks in an exciting home opener.

The Free Jacks, who were sporting their green St. Patrick’s Day kits for the occasion, never trailed after halftime, but they did need to overcome an early deficit after a try by Old Glory wing William Talataina opened the scoring in the eighth minute.

New England responded almost immediately. Flanker Joe Johnston evaded a DC defender with a slick sidestep, then fed a pass to Balekana, who outran his Old Glory counterpart and touched the ball down just inside the left touch line. Potroz’s conversion attempt was unsuccessful.

Then, after DC’s Joaquin Diaz Bonilla slotted a chip-shot penalty, the Free Jacks took their first lead of the contest when, in the 34th minute, inside center Wayne Van Der Bank shot though the Old Glory defense off a New England lineout, then flipped an offload to Balekana. The Fijian winger did the rest, diving over for his second try.

Minutes later, playing with 14 men after a yellow card on replacement lock Conor Keys, New England added to its advantage in the closing seconds of the first half. Aggressive defense by Johnston foiled an attempted clearing kick by Old Glory, and the Free Jacks capitalized. Lesage capped the ensuing counterattack by breaking two tackles and crossing the line as the halftime horn sounded.

A Poland try seven minutes into the second half off a 35-meter carry by No. 8 Wian Conradie made it 24-10 New England. But DC clawed back, scoring two tries in quick succession while lock Jesse Parete was sin-binned. Old Glory hooker Nic Souchon scored both tries off lineout mauls, exploiting the Free Jacks’ shorthanded forward pack.

Starting 8-man, Wian Conradie (ball in hand) goes into contact followed by wing, Mitch Wilson (right)

The score remained tied until the 68th minute when, after a series of unsuccessful pick-and-gos inches from the DC try line, Davidowicz received a short pass off a ruck and muscled through an Old Glory defender for the go-ahead try.

Potroz added a successful conversion, then converted a difficult 45-meter penalty with just over five minutes remaining that proved to be the match-winner.

The Free Jacks were forced to play the final 58 minutes without longtime captain Josh Larsen, who suffered an injury midway through the first half in his 50th career MLR appearance.

New England has scored 34 or more points in each of its two wins this season. Saturday’s victory improved the Free Jacks’ record to 2-1 ahead of a road matchup with the rival New York Ironworkers next Sunday in Mount Vernon, N.Y. Old Glory fell to 1-2 and will host the Toronto Arrows next Saturday.

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