MLR 2019 Preview: San Diego Legion

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FU Spanos and Dundon
Staff member
Jun 20, 2005
Chula Vista, CA

The last team to the Major League Rugby circuit in season one, San Diego Legion seemingly came out of nowhere but with immediate contender status. After showcasing three California teams in the lone iteration of PRO, the Legion remain the Golden State’s lone representative heading into MLR season two, with nearly equal clout ahead of the fresh season.
Constructed from some of the remnants from PRO’s San Diego Breakers and amongst the primary training grounds of USA Rugby, the Legion were and remain, largely, a who’s who of American rugby. While the dispersion of talent has grown even more heading into season two, the Legion look heavily likely to be competitive atop the league; whether enough to compete for the Americas Championship Shield again after making a run to the semifinals before losing to eventual MLR champions Seattle Seawolves, will have to be seen. With two new teams and a season nearly double in length, that won’t come as just a simple task, though.

From The Top

The coaching structure for the Legion remains intact from their first deep run in the competition. Rob Hoadley remains the man at the helm. After a successful playing career with the London Irish & London Wasps, Rob has enjoyed a coaching career that has taken him across the globe, including stops with the Welsh U20 side, Japan’s Top League’s Black Rams, as well as a role with the US men’s national team as a backs coach. That experience not only across some of the sport’s varying leagues but also player management from a myriad of backgrounds showed immediately as the Legion looked instantaneously a threatening, cohesive factor in the league… even if their roster construction had some deficiencies in the long run.
Zack Test will also return as the backs coach. He was also named academy director with the establishment of the Legion Rugby Foundation and Legion Rugby Academy back in September.

Scott Murray will also reprise his role as forwards coach.
The group guiding the Legion remains as impressive as before, but with a year under their belt and lay of the professional American rugby land, what will the group have in store for the second go?

Mountain To Climb

Upon its first iteration, the Legion appeared to borrow a lot from USA 7s, both in personnel and approach. While the idea of a free-flowing game was intriguing, the Legion quickly ran into problems in some of the disciplines unique to the 15-side game. They ran into scrummage and ruck problems they were left to routinely adapt from.
By season’s end, they had appeared to develop a game that mitigated those problems as much as possible, which culminated in a 23-5 win over the Glendale Raptors to close the regular season, their lone regular season loss –albeit it came with plenty of first-string players out of action.

Still, the shortcomings in the scrum again were on display against perhaps the league’s finest, Seattle, as they fell 24-38 in the MLR semifinals, in part due to those issues.
Addressing the aspect of the team appears to have been priority number one for San Diego, as they look to have come to grips on what they can and can’t achieve borrowing a backs-heavy approach.
Added to bolster their forwards unit this winter were Dean Muir (hooker), Australia’s Paddy Ryan (front row), Psalm Wooching (flanker), Matt Sandell (loose-head), Liam Hallam-Eames (lock), Louis Stanfill (lock), Keni Nasoqeqe (No.8), and Kapeli Pifeleti (hooker) will join brother Faka’osi.

Wooching has been a rising star in the USA Rugby ranks for some time now. The former University of Washington linebacker made the full switch to rugby in lieu of a try at the NFL, and he’s nearly ready to reap those rewards. He made his Eagles debut in the 2018 Americas Rugby Championship against Chile and has gone on to make a further three caps, including suiting up for a win over Samoa in Spain back in November.
Paddy Ryan is without a doubt the biggest addition that will aid in the Legion’s quest to battle better in the breakdown and scrums. He comes with 116 games of Super Rugby experience under his belt. The former Waratah also has three caps to his name with the Wallabies. The 30-year-old is certainly entering the waning days of his rugby career, having spent last season with Top League’s Sanix Blues, but he’ll be a major contributor in the Legion’s MLR conquest.
Ryan won’t be the lone Super Rugby aid, however, as fellow Waratah Matt Sandell will also bring some southern hemisphere flair to SD’s forwards. The prop spent the last three years with the Waratahs, albeit never made an appearance in-game. The 23-year-old comes to America with plenty of promise but already a daunting list of injuries to overcome. His previous two seasons have been derailed by knee injuries and had been relegated to just nine games over the last four years with the Sydney Stars (five) and Sydney Rays (four) of the National Rugby Championship.
It’ll be a largely different looking forward pack with the likes of Aaron Mitchell, Faka’osi Pifeleti, and Nathan Sylvia some of the lone faces set to return.

Double Down On Strength

The backs were where the Legion brought home the bread in season one and that theme should change little in season two. Even with the loss of prolific kicker Ben Cima to rival Seattle and Tadhg Leader, the backs look to make some noise in this league yet again.
The ever-elusive Mike Te’o returns to lurk in the back line, they add Fiji 7s’ Jasa Veremalua to their wings, Dylan Audsley and Ryan Matyas return to hold down the centers, while Nick Boyer will return to take the bulk of the scrum half duties. Nate Augspurger will remain the Legion’s Swiss Army knife, bouncing between roles of scrum half and taking up a position in the wings.
The uncapped 22-year-old Fijian Savenaca Totovosau will also factor in. He spent 2018 with Queensland Cup’s Easts Tigers. Adding a little more Fijian magic to the wings certainly can’t be a negative. He’ll join countryman Jasa Veremalua, although should look to factor in as a likely impact sub when SD is otherwise at full strength.
Kicking (along with the fly half position as a whole) will be the major question for a team that very much dominated that sector of play with Cima and Leader a year ago. In steps Joe Pietersen, who has some major boots to fill. Previously filling in as a full back, the 34-year-old South African appears the most likely to assume the kicking duties pending any further signings. Pietersen The Currie Cup, Super Rugby, and twice capped Blitzbok continues to seek out a positive spark to perhaps end his illustrious rugby career.
On kicking note, Dylan Audsley also finished top-10 in the league with eight conversions but factored little elsewhere in the kicking scheme. Regardless, he will likely see some chances to kick.

International Duties

The Legion bit off more than they could chew with some of their hopeful roster additions last year, with many unable to play due to international commitments, whether it was for USA Rugby or USA 7s. Currently, San Diego has five players that appeared on the November international roster, the most of any MLR outfit. That’ll continue to be a factor as the season will kick off and immediately be impacted by the call-up of the senior squad for the ARC, which will begin in February and run through March.
The Legion’s top lineup remains daunting, but the depth appears to have taken a bit of a hit coming into the new year. How the team can manage to hold on without key players in the lineup will again be crucial for this organization. With a season twice as long, a single loss is not as impactful, but the team will not want to just openly have a major drop in the table without their star players available.

Major Losses

A new season is as much defined by the losses a roster suffers as the additions. The Ben Cima loss has been spoken of in some length, and the Tadhg Leader in short. Leader, a former Connacht Academy member, has long demonstrated a fantastic sense of command on the pitch. And with or without the captain’s mark (was denoted captain mid-season), he was regularly seen dealing out commands to his backs to keep them organized. He also kicked with solid success, and not just for points. He featured in a try of the year candidate with his cross to Ryan Matyas in Round 2:
That innovative boot was a staple of his creative playmaking, and it will no doubt be missed. Tadhg started five of the eight regular season games at fly half for the Legion, and the team won every one of those games.
San Diego also bid adieu to Anthony Salaber, who will instead turn his focus to law school in 2019. Salaber finished tied fifth in the league last year with five tries. He last made his appearance for the USA Selects in October. It’s unclear if this represents a permanent step away from the sport for Salaber, who appeared a prime talent on the rise after a breakout year.

Also MIA is front rower Anthony Purpura, who was last seen with the New England Free Jacks, making an appearance in the exhibition game between Rugby United New York in December. Purpura left the field banged up before the match concluded, did not return, and little has been heard from the 32-year-old since.
Previously signed Malon Al-Jiboori has made a move from sevens to 15 but has signed a deal with the Raptors after playing one game for the Legion last season.
Cam Dolan will also set sail for the wholesale new-looking New Orleans Gold. The big-bodied forward will be a major loss for a team hoping to improve up front. There won’t likely be a bigger loss than that of Dolan, who is a formidable force in lineouts, rucks, mauls, and scrums. The USA Eagle was one of the lone bright spots in the forwards a year ago.
Off the roster, as well, is Tony Lamborn, who suffered a gruesome leg injury against Romaniaand will likely continue to remain out of the rugby mix for some time. It would be incredibly surprising to see him on a rugby pitch in time for any the MLR season, but crazier things have happened. Upon rehabbing that injury, Lamborn will be free to pick up where he left off, which could mean a return to San Diego… we’ll just have to wait and see.

Look Ahead

Of the four teams that made the semifinals in year one, San Diego currently looks a likely candidate not to return. While they made needed moves to their forwards, the same group also took some big losses. Combine that with the fact that they’re again the most impacted by international call-ups and that the talent dispersion in the league has evened out all the more –not to mention two strong debutants in RUNY and the Toronto Arrows– and the table has turned on the team that came in like a wrecking ball in season one. When this roster is at full strength, they’ll boast one of the league’s most elite back units, but how often will we get to see that in a World Cup year and the ARC set to throw a wrench at the start of the season?
While getting back to the playoffs should obviously be a back burner goal, the key for San Diego will unquestionably be keeping the buzz growing in a market that can struggle to support their teams. Without a football team to compete for, there’s plenty of contact sports fans to cash in on, and the Legion has had some of MLR’s best outreach throughout its inception thus far. It’s long been a hotbed of rugby thanks to USA Rugby calling it their unofficial home. Keep that up and keep morale high, and they’ll without a doubt remain an attractive spot for talent to find themselves going forward.


FU Spanos and Dundon
Staff member
Jun 20, 2005
Chula Vista, CA

The glamour boys of Major League Rugby. If this was a sevens tournament you could hand the title to the San Diego Legion right now. Unfortunately, as they found out last season, rugby is more than just a track meet and you need heavy lifters up front to hold on to the ball. The good news is they look to have acquired exactly that in the months since Seattle sent them packing in the Semi Final.
It might be harsh to call them underachievers last season given they had a winning record, finished third in the league, and were the only side to beat Glendale in the regular season. That said expectations were very high with the amount of star power on the team, especially in the backline. A number of factors – injuries, international call-ups, and visa problems – took them out of title contention.
Losing Cam Dolan to New Orleans certainly hurts, as does the departure of flyhalf pair Tadhg Leader and Ben Cima. Eagles flanker Tony Lamborn arrived at the end of last season but a serious ankle injury suffered on Eagles duty in November likely means he won’t be showing up at all this year. Anthony Salaber has opted to focus on his law degree and will instead be turning out for Divison 2 club side Vacaville, while Taku Ngwenya has moved to Dallas.
By far the most important acquisitions for the Legion are in the tight five. Former Waratahs pair Matt Sandell and Paddy Ryan shoot will help at prop while two quality hookers have come in – Kapeli Pifeleti from Saracens and Stormers squad member Deon Muir. Adding horsepower to the engine room is former Eagles stalwart Lou Stanfill while Liam Hallam-Eames brings lineout height from New Zealand.
As if they needed any more x-factor, three Fijians have arrived to cause trouble. Keni Nasoqeqe is a specimen who can play lock but is most dangerous as a ball-carrying No8. On the wing there are now twin towers in Olympic star Jasa Veremalua and relative unknown Save Totovosau, the latter turning heads in the preseason. Psalm Wooching will start the season on the disabled list but is sure to make an impact on the flank when fit, and the return of the mercurial Tai Enosa to top flight rugby should not be overlooked.
San Diego rugby fans will turn up a Torero Stadium for a third season, the first coming during the infamous PRO season in 2016. With a capacity of 6,000 it’s a good size but could use some filling. For an older venue it has served the team well thus far and the passionate Legionnaires are some of the most entertaining spectators in MLR.
Returning for a second year is Rob Hoadley. Despite his young age he boasts considerable professional experience both as a player and coach. Hoadley is a cerebral and modern leader who demands accuracy. Can he inspire his troops to greater things in 2019? Zack Test continues as a backs assistant but there is a change in the forwards role with former Scotland lock Scott Murray taking over from Chris Cracknell.
While Nate Augspurger began last season with the armband, it was Tadhg Leader who took over in the second half and led the team in the Semi Final. This year it’s the vastly experienced Joe Pietersen who will act as on-field general. The long-time Stormers starter is now in the twilight of his career but remains in top physical condition. After starting the Semi Final at fullback, he will step up to the flyhalf position this season and serve as primary goal kicker.
The San Diego scrum desperately needed help in the off-season and incoming tighthead prop Paddy Ryan will be a major factor in keeping it rooted in place this season. After struggling at the set piece early in his career, Ryan has now packed down in more than a hundred Super Rugby games and should be more than capable of handling the best that MLR has to offer. His experience comes much needed to cover the loss of last year’s pack leader Cam Dolan.
Usurping Augpurger as the preferred scrumhalf for San Diego last season was Nick Boyer. With the size of a loose forward he is a unique talent whose fundamentals are improving with every game now that he has shifted his focus from 7s to XVs. After making his test debut in November he could force his way into the World Cup squad if he lives up to his potential.
There is talent to burn with the likes of Dylan Audsley and Mike Te’o on the books, but it’s Ryan Matyas who really makes the backline tick. His speed and running lines make him a dangerous attacker but he is also an effective defender. With Salaber gone the starting outside center role will go to Matyas where his line-breaking ability is amplified.
The 19-year-old Pifeleti has already been called into the Eagles side and could be a breakthrough star at hooker. A sophomore flanker who could be the next on Gary Gold’s hit list. Devin Short probably played a lot more than expected last season and he turned heads with his athleticism and physicality. At just 20 years old he has all the tools to become an Eagles regular and just needs is a little more seasoning, but he has already shown maturity beyond his years.
Firepower. This team is built to blow the doors off opponent who gives them space to run. With the amount of x-factor the Legion can score from anywhere and a double-digit lead can disappear in the blink of an eye. No lead is safe when you’re playing San Diego.
The scrum has looked much improved in the preseason but this weekend it’s the real deal. Achieving parity at the set piece will go a long way to driving this team from pretenders to contenders. It looks like they have the bodies to do that this season. Time will tell.
Depth in the forwards was a major problem last season that looks to have been mostly solved. It’s the halfbacks that are a worry this time. With Boyer called up to the Eagles and Augspurger injured, there is no specialist scrumhalf in the squad and Enosa seemingly the primary cover at both 9 and 10. A new recruit here might be advised.
It’s hard to predict where this team will end up. On paper their backs are as good as any and while the forwards are undoubtedly in a better place, they’re still not quite as intimidating as others. Many of the new faces are projected to be first choice players so it may take some time for this team to really get going. Given the continued strength of last year’s finalists and the competitive look of the expansion sides, San Diego look likely to be in the mid-table mix gunning for the fourth playoff spot.
IN: Paddy Ryan (PR, Sanix Blues, JP), Matt Sandell (PR, Waratahs, AU), Deon Muir (HO, Kintetsu Liners, JP), Kapeli Pifeleti (HO, Saracens, UK), Liam Hallam-Eames (LO, Manawatu Turbos, NZ), Louis Stanfill (LO, Austin Elite), Psalm Wooching (FL, Seattle Saracens), Keni Nasoqeqe (N8, Belmont Shore), Taivalu Enosa (SH/FH, SFGG), Savenaca Totovosau (WI), Jasa Veremalua (WI, Fiji Sevens, FI)
OUT: Dolph Botha (PR), Tony Purpura (PR, New England FreeJacks), Pat O’Toole (HO, Houston SaberCats), Lance Lamprecht (LO), Tony Lamborn (FL, Southland Stags, NZ), Cam Dolan (N8, New Orleans Gold), Malon Al-Jiboori (N8, Glendale Raptors), Ben Cima (FH, Seattle Seawolves), Tadhg Leader (FH, New England FreeJacks), Anthony Salaber (CE, Vacaville), Takudzwa Ngwenya (WI, Dallas Reds)