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World Cup-winning former All Blacks named to start in Major League Rugby final

By Sam Smith
(Photo by Phil Walter/Getty Images)

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Three World Cup-winning former All Blacks stars have been named to start in this weekend’s Major League Rugby final in the United States.

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Andy Ellis, Waisake Naholo and Nehe Milner-Skudder will all start for Rugby New York in the finale of North America’s premier club competition against the Seattle Seawolves at Red Bull Arena in New Jersey on Saturday [local time].

All three players headline a strong Kiwi contingent at Rugby New York, who have a total of nine New Zealanders in their starting starting lineup.

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Joining Ellis, the 38-year-old 2011 World Cup winner who is in his second season with Rugby New York, in the halves is young North Harbour first-five Jack Heighton, who was part of the Blues squad two years ago.

Together, Ellis and Heighton will lead a backline that features 2015 World Cup-winning teammates Naholo and Milner-Skudder at right wing and fullback, respectively.

Naholo and Milner-Skudder were both mid-to-late-season additions to the Rugby New York, with the former – a 26-test international – joining the team in April after having spent time with the Crusaders as injury cover earlier in the year.

Milner-Skudder, meanwhile, followed suit almost a month later following a Super Rugby Pacific pre-season training spell with the Hurricanes.

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The 2015 World Rugby Breakthrough Player of the Year’s move to America came after he told RugbyPass last December of his ambitions to earn an All Blacks recall.

Milner-Skudder and Naholo are accompanied in the outside backs by Canadian international Andrew Coe, who is the only non-New Zealander in the Rugby New York backline.

That backline also includes ex-Highlanders and Maori All Blacks midfielder Jason Emery, who lines up at second-five alongside former Otago, Bay of Plenty and All Blacks Sevens centre Fa’asiu Fuatai.

Three Kiwis also feature in the Rugby New York forward pack, with ex-Blues and Crusaders flanker Brendon O’Connor, former Blues and Manawatu No 8 Antonio Kiri Kiri and Otago lock Will Tucker all named to start in the back row.

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Elsewhere, former Super Rugby props Nic Nayhew and Kalolo Tuiloma – a recent Manu Samoa call-up – have been named on the bench, which also features Canadian midfielder Quinn Ngawati, who is of Maori heritage through his father.

The remainder of the Rugby New York starting team is made up of USA Eagles stars Dylan Fawsitt, Chance Wenglewski, Ben Bonasso and Nate Brakeley, as well as Brazilian international Wilton Rebolo.

Rugby New York’s strong connection to New Zealand extends beyond the playing squad, with head coach Marty Veale a former lock for Northland and North Harbour.

The club is also owned by Kiwi businessman Murray Bolton, while Rugby New York’s chief executive is Ric Salizzo, the former All Blacks media manager and renowned media personality.

Rugby New York qualified for the MLR final on the back of a regular season where they finished third in the Eastern Conference with 11 wins and five losses.

After overcoming Rugby ATL and the New England Free Jacks in the Eastern Conference playoffs, Rugby New York will compete for the MLR title with a Seattle Seawolves team that has benefitted from controversy in the Western Conference.

The Austin Gilgronis and LA Giltinis – last year’s title-winners – finished in the top two spots in the Western Conference, but were both disqualified by MLR for league violations earlier this month.

Both teams, which are owned by Australian businessman Adam Gilchrist, were replaced by the Seawolves and Ma’a Nonu’s San Diego Legion, who joined the Houston Sabercats in the Western Conference playoffs.

Seattle thumped San Diego in the Western Conference semi-finals before they outscored Houston in a high-scoring shootout last week to book their place in this weekend’s final.

USA internationals Samu Manoa, Andrew Durutalo, Riekert Hattingh and Martin Iosefo and Manu Samoa first-five AJ Alatimu are among the notable figures in Seattle’s starting lineup, which includes one Kiwi in Tasman prop Sam Matenga.

Kick-off for this weekend’s final is scheduled for 12pm local time [4am Sunday NZT].

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