Can Old Glory maintain the momentum of last week's amazing performance against a resurgent Houston Sabercats?
When: Saturday, February 22, 2020
Time: 8:00 pm Kickoff
Where: Aveva Stadium, Houston (map)
Opponent: Houston Sabercats
Channel: ESPN+ (streaming), NBC Sports Washington (local)
Watch party: Exiles Bar (map)
After a disappointing loss to the NOLA Gold in week one and a thrilling home upset of the Seattle Seawolves in week two, what's fair to expect of this team in week three against the Houston Sabercats? The experts seem to be picking Houston, but I personally think that Old Glory matches up well against Houston. Let's break it down.
How good are the Houston Sabercats?
Houston has always been a bit of an odd team in the MLR. They have the fundamental building blocks of a good team, but they have been unable to convert that into wins. Last season they only managed six wins despite having one of the best scrums in the league. Coming into this year, the storyline for Houston was whether they could finally convert potential into points.
The answer, at least of now, is simultaneously yes, no, and maybe. They have undeniably played better than last year, winning an upset against the Colorado Raptors 21-12 and barely losing at the last moment on a held-up try to the Toronto Arrows 27-22. In that second game they showed great character to come back from a 24-5 hole in the first half. Their scrumhalf De Wet Roos lead with a force of will that powered them to within inches of an upset and they were explosive on the edge when they could get the ball out there.
However, they also showed that not everything has been solved. Houston plays a deep back line, which Toronto was able to pressure by coming up very quickly and stifling their attack. It was only once the Arrows got a bit too comfortable in their lead and relaxed their pressure that Houston started being able to get the ball to the edge and create progress. Similarly, on defense Houston was unable to handle the quick ball that Toronto preferred to play, which lead to the line breaks and tries from the Arrows.
Overall, Houston is a good team if and when they can control the pace of the game, get set in their defense, and have room to breathe in their attack.
Players to watch
Scrumhalf De Vet Roos and flyhalf Sam Windsor powered the Sabercats in their second half comeback against the Arrows. It's very possible that Houston's fate lies in their hands for this game and every game. Also a threat is winger Malacchi Esdale, who is a highly effective runner if you give him any speed or space.
How good is Old Glory?
Old Glory is a good team with the potential to be a great team. Perhaps more importantly, its a team that is growing and improving with every game.
Against NOLA, Old Glory never really stood a chance with their rough and unready scrum. Near total dominance of the set piece gave OGDC a Sisyphean task of pushing into the Gold's territory, only to see the ball get sent all the way back. It affected everything in the game from tactics to morale.
Against Seattle, the introduction of Tendai Mtawarira stabilized the scrum enough to make all of those problems go away. The scrum in-and-of itself is still a problem; there are still far too many penalties going against Old Glory. However, these problems are no longer so out of control that it sinks the whole ship before it even starts sailing. With a week of real practice and time in the pack, it will be interesting to how much more he can improve things.
Outside of the scrum, OGDC has proved very effective. On attack, they play quickly and are good at finding and exploiting gaps in the defensive line. They provide good support to their teammates and offloading is a strength. On defense, they are disciplined and effective at preventing serious line breaches. Their biggest weakness is an aggressive runner on the edge of the line, where Old Glory has given up quite a bit of ground.
In many ways, DC matches up well with Houston. It's already been shown that fast play and aggression are the keys to shutting down Houston, and that fits exactly with how OGDC likes to play. The Sabercats have also shown a tendency to allow line breaks when caught on the back foot, which is a strength of this Old Glory squad. The leveling factors will be the scrum and Houston's speed out wide. If Old Glory can't stifle the ball before it makes it to the wing, it could be a rough night.
Players to watch
Obviously, the Beast's role in this game will be widely felt. Hopefully, the week he's had in the pack has brought some improvements to the scrum. Co-captain Mungo Mason was named to the MLR First XV after a brilliant performance last week. Expect him to bring it again this week. A more under-appreciated player to watch is Dante Lopresti, a local player who's participation as hooker helped increase Old Glory's lineouts-won percentage from 65% to 90%.
The duo of Danny Tusitala at scrumhalf and Jason Robertson at flyhalf was amazing against the Seawolves and should be the key in piercing the Sabercats' defenses. How they match against Sam Windsor and De Vet Roos will be fascinating to see. On defense, how outside center Ciaran Hearn and wingers Thretton Palamo and Declan O'Donnell cope with Houston's wide attack will also be key. Furthermore, although he isn't starting, Doug Fraser was excellent last week and should be good coming off the bench.
- Tendai Mtawarira
- Dante Lopresti
- Gordon Fullerton
- Tevita Naqali
- Dylan Pieterse
- Matt Hughston
- Mungo Mason
- Jamason Fa'anana-Schultz
- Danny Tusitala
- Jason Robertson
- Renata Roberts-Te Nana
- Ciaran Hearn
- Thretton Palamo
- Declan O'Donnell
- Dylan Taikato-Simpson
- Max Lum
- Jake Turnbull
- Will Vakalahi
- Travis Larsen
- Josh Brown
- Michael Reid
- Mike Dubalus
- Doug Fraser
We will learn a lot about both teams in this game. If Old Glory can play at the level they did last week while steadily improving the scrum, then they are a team that everyone in the league should take seriously. For Houston, a win here would prove that they may finally be making good on their potential.
The experts are generally choosing the Sabercats to win, though usually by a smaller margin. For my money, I think that Old Glory's fast play will be too much for Houston to stop, and a decent defensive showing will prevent the Sabercats from clawing their way back. Predicted score: Old Glory DC 28-24 Houston Sabercats