Mathieu Bastareaud’s high-profile move to Major League Rugby got off to an inauspicious start, but things may be taking a turn for the former French captain.
Rugby United New York were dismantled by league debutants New England Free Jacks in the opening round of the MLR and the glaring omission of their big-name signing for the majority of the game caught the eye of many. Bastareaud was invisible at inside centre and looked off the pace. However, after a positional switch into the forward pack, Bastareud is starting to hush whispers that he may become the first big-name bust signing in MLR history.
Despite losing to league leaders San Diego on Sunday, who were without Ma’a Nonu due to a late injury, Bastareaud showed glimpses of his old destructive self.
The bruising ball carrier has found a home as the anchor of New York’s scrum. Bastareaud is being deployed far more in the midfield than on the peripheries and is creating havoc for opponents at the breakdown defensively. New York is leading the league in breakdown steals, in no small part due to Bastareaud’s presence. He remains immovable when clamping down on unsuspecting ball carriers.
The move to the forwards has immediately improved Bastareaud’s defensive performance. In Week 3 he was named as the eight-man on the MLR XV of the week on the back of 18 tackles in a victory over Rugby Atlanta along with 15 carries for 109 metres. He followed that up by posting a 100% tackle rate the next week.
Where Bastareaud fits as an attacking option at this stage of his career remains to be seen. With his deceptive elusiveness dwindling, New York is increasingly running Bastareaud as a battering ram. It has been effective, but his trademark offloading game is far more devastating when offered one-on-one opportunities in space.
New York is still trying to find creative ways to utilize Bastareaud. One such tactical decision has been to hold Bastareaud in the backfield on exiting kicks as a hard carrying option beside Ben Foden on the counter-attack.
Bastareaud’s move to the United States hasn’t been as seamless as other international counterparts.
Nonu remains timeless and has a case to be the MVP of the league thus far, while Tendai Mtawarira helped knock off two-time defending champion Seattle Seawolves on his debut. Former All-Blacks Frank Halai and Rene Ranger have injected life into their respective teams at the outside centre position.
Still, the disappointment of Bastareaud’s opening match feels like a distant memory. He has become a crucial part of New York’s early success and the coaching staff has shown a willingness to be innovative in maximizing Bastareaud’s impact on the pitch. If they hope to be a contender in the playoffs then New York must continue to tap into whatever the French star has left in the tank.
Watch: Eddie Jones to discuss England future with RFU.
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