Major League Rugby: New England down San Diego to win first title | Rugby union

The New England Free Jacks and the San Diego Legion scored three tries each in the Major League Rugby Championship Final in Chicago on Saturday, the boot of Jayson Potroz making the difference and giving New England their first US professional rugby union title.

The New Zealander Free Jacks fly-half was one of a number of international players on show at the SeatGeek Stadium outside Chicago – with the 103-cap All Blacks center Ma’a Nonu turning out for the Legion, not long having turned 41.

Nonu’s mistake, spilling a pass on his own 22, gave New England the first try of the game, their Kiwi skipper, the flanker Mitch Jacobson, racing over the line. The Legion answered with a try of their own, the flanker Christian Poidevin – son of the Australia openside great Simon Poidevin – going over after a short lineout move and a snipe from Richard Judd, the Kiwi at scrum-half.

Two goals from Potroz made it 13-7 to the Free Jacks but a short inside pass from Nonu, a break from the US Eagles wing Nate Augsperger (in 2021, the first American ever to score a try against the All Blacks), a series of missed tackles and Will Hooley’s conversion gave San Diego a 14-13 lead. A penalty from Hooley, formerly of Bedford and Northampton in England but a US Eagles full-back, made it 17-13 at the break.

New England took the lead again in the second half with a spectacular try, the Fijian wing Paula Balekana swooping in at the corner. Augspurger then hit back with his second try, diving over to make it 22-20 to San Diego. The conversion made it 24-20, leaving the Free Jacks needing a try to win.

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They got it through Le Roux Malan, their South African center getting away from Nonu to cross the line with minutes left in the match.

MLR has now completed five of six seasons, 2020 having fallen victim to Covid. Two teams, Los Angeles and Austin, dropped out in 2022 but the Chicago Hounds played their first season this year. Next year a 13th team, the Miami Sharks, is due to join the competition.

Having awarded the 2031 men’s and 2033 women’s Rugby World Cups to the US – and after the Eagles men failed to qualify for the tournament in France this fall – World Rugby will watch keenly what comes next.

MLR will be encouraged by an announced attendance of 10,153, the highest for its championship game.

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