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The New England Free Jacks haven’t shied away from challenging themselves as they prepare for their step into Major League Rugby in 2020. Just weeks after announcing the team and expansion bid, they were on the pitch with a roster that seemingly came out of nowhere. They haven’t looked back since.
That journey included dustups with Rugby United New York and the now Toronto Arrows, who both happen to be vying for a place in the playoffs on the final day of the MLR in their first seasons. It also included an ambitious four-game series against the four Irish provincial teams’ academy rosters.
The Free Jacks have managed to do plenty since their announced arrival back in September 2018, but one thing that had eluded this organization was a win.
Home of the American Revolution, it’s not too shocking that the region’s first professional rugby team is coming out of the gates swinging. It’s just the Boston/New England way after all. The Jacks took on a spring fixture of contests that were far from even 50/50 contests. Taking on even the academy/developmental sides of the mighty Leinster, Munster, Ulster, and Connacht was a daunting task, doing it in a consecutive manner as just the team’s third through fifth games together was lunacy.
But, as the saying goes, there’s plenty to learn in failure and defeat and only so much in victory. Where the Free Jacks could have rounded up some regional US club sides and collectively steamrolled through their initial displays on the pitch, they instead opted for the big challenge of trying against some of the best teams available. It was certainly trial by fire. The Irish sides showed this team with limited time together exactly the flaws they had and put them front and center in the spotlight. It brought the best out of the roster, at times the team tapped into a higher gear of play and looked to go toe-to-toe with the Irish sides. Ultimately, the men from the Emerald Isle rounded out each game capitalizing better and grinding down in the waning moments that mattered most. As such, even with appropriately muted expectations of wins in these contests, morales were understandably stretched thin as the team was looking to put a close on its first stretch of time together winless.
Bookending the first block of exhibition games, the Free Jacks welcomed a fifth Irish side to town in the form of Lansdowne RFC, winner of the most recent All-Ireland League and All-Ireland Cup. And there was a clear pressure to come away with a win in this one. After an exhibition game against the Arrows’ ‘A’ team in May was canceled and a showdown with fellow expansion side Old Glory DC fell through due to logistical issues, this was it before the group went their own ways for the summer.
That sense of urgency manifested on the field in the best of ways. Again far from a flawless 80-minute game, the New England Free Jacks made history nonetheless when they toppled Lansdowne 46-29 to close the book on their exhibition season, putting down in the history books the first of hopefully many wins in the organization’s future.
Captain Tadhg Leader, after an appearance-less 10-day loan to NOLA Gold, was back and ready to take on his name in a literal manner and take charge from the front of the pack of his team. The vocal conductor on the field, he had his team nipping at the bid from the get-go. When Lansdowne scored in the first minute, Tadhg was there to answer the call moments later when he chipped a ball over the defensive line to find Christian Adams who offloaded to Peceli Rinakama in a play that looked quite similar a play pieced together in stunning perfection against Munster.
“We just talk about it in training, if you see space have the confidence to call it and then obviously it’s me trying to execute. Thankfully it worked out well today and a little bit in the Cara Cup,” Leader said of the scoring effort. “It’s a huge weapon in today’s game. Team’s defenses are so good and so fast, if you can take space behind them it makes life easier. Then later on in the game attack it, because they’re not as quick off the line. Thankfully it worked out, it doesn’t always go that way, but it did today.”
Leader, who was no doubt the man of the match, wasn’t done there. He tacked on two tries in the second half amidst a crucial 19-0 run for the Jacks. He finished the day with 21 points. The boot wasn’t flawless but he worked around the misses, going four-of-seven on conversions but knocking down the lone penalty attempt.
That was the theme of the day really, though. Where minor mistakes blew up into game-altering chances for the opposition before, there was no major meltdown from New England in this game. They rebounded from mistakes with sheer determination to ensure they wouldn’t allow slip-ups to be their undoing.
The forward pack had moments of sheer dominance and were making regular penetrations across the gain line in the midfield. The likes of Jackson Thiebes, Conor Kindregan, and Pago Haini all dotted down in the contest from the forwards. And the entire pack deserves plenty of pats on the back for their efforts doing the game’s nitty-gritty to great ability.
The defense was narrow at times, they allowed Lansdowne to carry 75% of the possession in the first half, yet they pieced together a marvelous effort to collect the first win in team history. This is a bit of the culmination of everything this team has been working on on the last three months. Limiting mistakes, capitalizing on holes, and playing great rugby in moments that matter. Trial by fire has done this team well and it’s a shame that positive momentum will have to be put on hold as the team breaks for the summer and heads in many directions.
The rugby machine that is the New England Free Jacks chugs ever forward. Deposits are now open for season tickets for next season, getting the chance to become a founding member of the Free Jacks’ great home supporters group. For $20, a refundable deposit can be put down to secure tickets to all eight home games in the 2020 season. A venue has yet to be selected, but for what it’s worth, the Irish Cultural Centre has put forth two of the greatest venue showcases of this exhibition season. Saturday was again a display of community rugby that only the ICC can deliver. The Boston Irish Wolfhounds set the tone for the day with the primer against Lansdowne B, pushing them late but ultimately falling short 24-35.
After a hard fought match against the Free Jacks, on and off the field, Lansdowne’s touring party went on to New York and then returned home to Dublin
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