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Strength of the schedule: Major League Rugby's Western Conference

By Finn Morton
(Photo by Stuart Walmsley/Getty Images)

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Major League Rugby released their 2021 season schedule on Tuesday, with the competition set to return on March 20th.


All fans will be counting down the days until a try is scored, a ball is kicked, or a whistle is blown in MLR, after this year’s season was cancelled after five-rounds due to the outbreak of COVID-19.

While that makes determining a teams draw relatively difficult, results from the 2019 season have been included (where possible) for a more thorough look into the strength of each teams schedule.

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The Breakdown discuss what the All Blacks’ top priority is for 2021.
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But with New England, Atlanta and Washington DC all having made their debuts in 2020, so having only played five competitive matches, their winning percentages had to be included simply going off what we’ve seen. Also, both LA Giltinis and Dallas Jackals couldn’t be considered.

Teams were ranked from one to 11 going off winning percentage. From their 16 matches, each team with given points depending on where their opponents ranked, so as an example, teams who are playing the Legion were given one point for that week.

All teams facing either Dallas or LA were given zero for those weeks.

Regular season winning percentage since 2019

1. San Diego Legion: 80.95%

2. Old Glory DC: 80%*

3. Toronto Arrows: 71.43%

4. Rugby United New York: 66.67%

=5. Seattle Seawolves + NOLA Gold: 57.14%

7. Rugby ATL: 40%*

8. Houston SaberCats: 33.33%

9. New England Free Jacks: 20%*

10. Utah Warriors: 19.04%

11. Austin Gilgronis: 4.76%

*MLR debut in 2020

But seeing that LA and Dallas can’t play themselves, while every other Western Conference side would face both sides twice, the average rating of a team’s schedule had to be the determining factor. To do that, the ranking score was divided up by 12 (excludes matches against both LA and Dallas), and 14 for the expansion sides (excludes the two matches against each other).

While there have been ins and outs for all teams and we’ll get to that as the season gets closer, this is just a starting point of how each team sits in the Western Conference according to past form.



San Diego Legion

Schedule: 1st – Easiest

Regular season winning percentage: 80.95%

Average opponent ranking: 7.67 / 92 ranking points

Supported by arguably the easiest schedule in the Western Conference, 2021 might just be the year that San Diego claim an elusive Major League Rugby title. The Legion made the semis in MLR’s inaugural season, were runners up last year, and were atop of the standings when their most recent campaign was cut short after five rounds.

But they’ve been handed a favourable draw heading into next season, which will seem them play half of their away matches against the four sides with the worst winning percentages since 2019 (Houston, Austin, Utah and New England).

They’re also set for a potentially crucial match against rivals Seattle in week 15, less than a month before the playoffs. Both teams are expected to contest for the number one seed, so this one could be for all the chocolates.

At home, they’ll have a really tough and meaningful clash against Toronto in week two, pitting the top two sides from the 2020 standings against each other. Other than that though, it should be relatively smooth sailing for the Legion, if past form is anything to go off.


LA Giltinis

Schedule: 2nd

Regular season winning percentage: n/a

Average opponent ranking: 6.79 / 95 ranking points

After a quiet few months since they were officially revealed by the league as an expansion side in late-May, the Giltinis have begun to unveil an exciting roster. Coached by Darren Coleman, the list includes former Wallabies Dave Dennis and Billy Meakes, Canadian winger DTH van der Merwe, and exciting Australian talent in Mahe Vailanu.

But looking at their schedule, there’s no reason the Giltinis can’t make the playoffs in their inaugural campaign.

They have a blockbuster to open both their season and history in MLR, playing at home against fellow expansion side, Dallas Jackals. That’s the start of back-to-back home matches, with their second coming against Austin.

While they do have some tough home matches, it’s largely manageable considering the talent that they’ve got coming in.

But away matches can really make or break a playoff contender yet in many ways, it’s an easier run than what they have at home. While they’ve got to play San Diego away, the others are matches that they’re capable of winning (Utah, Houston, New England, Austin, Dallas, Atlanta, Seattle).

Cross Conference matches against New York, New England, New Orleans and Atlanta should be a great indicator of where they sit in the playoff race.

With arguably the second easiest run of any team in the Western Conference, the Giltinis should be a team to keep an eye out for throughout the 2021 season.


Houston SaberCats

Schedule: 3rd

Regular season winning percentage: 33.33%

Average opponent ranking: 6.33 / 76 ranking points

Houston only won one match this year, but will be disappointed not to have made it two after blowing a 10-point half-time lead against rivals Austin. But the SaberCats have an opportunity to improve on that season if they can make the most of a good schedule.

They will play all three teams who currently have a worse percentage than them (since 2019) at home, which includes Eastern Conference side New England who’ve only played five MLR matches in their history. But on top of that, they are set to face Seattle, San Diego and Rugby United, as well as both expansion sides in LA and Dallas at the Aveva Stadium.

If they can win most of those matches, then winning away matches against Austin and Utah is a must for the SaberCats. They’ll also play away matches to DC and Atlanta, but avoid Toronto all together.

They are set to face Seattle and the Legion away from home in the space of three weeks, so making home matches count is a must if they want to make the playoffs.

A final round bye could be an issue for the SaberCats though, if they were to make the playoffs. How that would affect momentum will be an interesting talking point as the season nears the business end, but only if they’re looking like a title contender.


Dallas Jackals

Schedule: 4th

Regular season winning percentage: n/a

Average opponent ranking: 6.21 / 87 ranking points

As one of two expansion sides joining MLR for the 2021 season, there’s plenty of intrigue about what Dallas can add to the competition on the field. They had the first pick in the inaugural MLR Collegiate Draft, selecting Life University utility back Conner Mooneyham, as well as three other players.

As a team who have plenty of potential, they’ll have a genuine opportunity to turn some heads next year after being handed a mixed schedule.

Other than matches against Austin, Houston and Utah, the Jackals are set to face some of the best sides in the competition at home. They’ll host NOLA, DC, the Seawolves and Legion – as well as the Giltinis. The match against San Diego will be especially tough, seeing that they’re playing the Arrows in Toronto less than a week before.


Seattle Seawolves

Schedule: 5th

Regular season winning percentage: 57.14%

Average opponent ranking: 6.17 / 74 ranking points

It’s fair to say that fans were left disappointed with the performances from the Seawolves in 2020, who were 10th on the standings when the season was cancelled, having won just one from five. But as the only franchise to have won an MLR title, they’ll have to do it the hard way as they look to return to former glory.

Seattle face Austin first up, a team who have won just one from 21 regular season matches played since the beginning of last year’s campaign. But that’s the start of five straight matches on the road, which includes back-to-back matches against Eastern Conference contenders NOLA and Rugby United.

In weeks nine and 10, the Seawolves have back-to-back matches against San Diego and Toronto, which is about as tough as it gets in MLR. But to make it even tougher for Seattle, they’ll then face Old Glory DC after a bye, playing three of the better sides in the competition across 22 days.


Utah Warriors

Schedule: 6th

Regular season winning percentage: 19.04%

Average opponent ranking: 5.75 / 69 ranking points

After winning just two matches from 16 played in 2019, Utah appeared to be taking some promising steps forward as they matched that in just five games this year.

But their opening few weeks of the season will be a great test for the Warriors, as they look to prove whether they can compete with some of the historically better sides. Up first is an away match to San Diego, before also playing New Glory DC away in round three. In week 14, they’re also set to make the trip to Toronto.

As for their home matches, playing the likes of San Diego, New Orleans and Seattle is going to be tough – they’re going to have to earn each win.


Austin Gilgronis

Schedule: 7th – Toughest

Regular season winning percentage: 4.76%

Average opponent ranking: 5.33 / 64 ranking points

Austin are very much up against it when it comes to qualifying for the playoffs, having been handed the toughest draw in the Conference. The Gilgronis won one from five in 2020, which was their fourth win in the history of the competition.

Next year, they’ll start their season with four home games from their first six, with their first two away fixtures coming against new-comers LA and Dallas.

But two matches against San Diego and Seattle across the season, and playing both Eastern Conference powerhouses Toronto and DC once, will make things especially tough.

Notably as well, they’ll face San Diego away in week 14 on a Saturday, before having to back that up against 2019 semi-finalists Rugby United on the following Thursday.


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