NOLA Gold enjoying first-place start to season – The Advocate
Eight weeks into their second season as a professional rugby organization, the NOLA Gold is sitting atop the Major League Rugby standings.
The Gold (5-1) leads the MLR with 26 points, riding a two-game win streak after dismantling the Houston Sabercats 49-11 last weekend — the highest score in the league so far this year.
NOLA also fields the No. 1 offense in the league, averaging 36 points per game, helped in large part by leading scorer and vice-captain, Jean-Pierre Eloff.
The 27-year-old South African is in his second year with the Gold and is fourth in the league with 67 points heading into Saturday’s matchup against Austin Elite Rugby.
Eloff credits his individual and the team’s overall success to its improved talent from last year, when they finished in sixth place out of seven teams with a 3-5 record in 2018.
“Especially just compared to last year, we struggled a lot with our depth. Once somebody went down, the standard kind of dropped,” Eloff said. “But here, the guy on the bench might as well start. We’ve got guys filling in where none of the level drops off. It helps us just stay into tune. We don’t lose any ability. We don’t lose any pattern, nothing. Once guys slot in, we’re all on the same page and we all play at the same level, so that helps a lot.”
A key addition to the team has been 22-year-old Tristan Blewett, another South African who’s tied for the league lead with six tries. Last week he recorded a hat trick against Houston and set the MLR single-game record with 237 meters carried in the win.
Blewett, however, suffered a concussion in the 52nd minute against the Sabercats and will sit out against Austin.
Taylor Howden, last year’s team captain, steps into the starting lineup in Blewett’s place, but Eloff has no concerns about the Gold’s offensive production dropping off.
“Obviously we lose a little bit of speed with Tristan, but it’s not a problem for us,” Eloff said. “We’ve got enough speed and we’ve got enough talent in our back line to take the chances that we get.”
Additionally, for the first six weeks of the season, the Gold dealt with the departures of five of their starters in their forwards unit — Cam Dolan (USA), Kyle Baillie (Canada), Eric Howard (Canada), Hubert Buydens (Canada) and Ignacio Dotti (Uruguay).
The five were back and forth between New Orleans and their respective countries, competing internationally in the Americas Rugby Championship.
During that span, however, the Gold went 4-1.
Last week all five returned to the starting lineup, with Howard and Baillie both scoring.
Now, with everyone free from international duties for the rest of the year, another forward, Zack Stryffeler, said the unit is starting jell together once again.
“It’s been good. It was nice getting the boys back,” said Stryffeler, who leads the league with 105 tackles (17.5 per game). “There’s an unreal amount of experience, ability and leadership out of those guys coming in. Last week was good to get them back in. This week we’re starting to roll a bit more.”
“We’ve got a lot of guys that stepped up huge while the ARC boys were out. So those guys are going to get their opportunities to start shining as well, so we’ve got an unreal battle in the forward group.”
Stryffeler credits a big part of the team’s success to the type of guys the team brought in, and the way they click not only on the field but off it as well.
“Management has done a great job in the offseason, bringing guys in and getting a lot of ability onto the team and a lot of good attitudes, so they’ve fit in well with the team,” Stryffeler said. “If someone goes down, then you know it’s not a massive concern, because you know you’ve got another guy coming up who’s hungry, who’s ready, who’s prepared and who’s ready to go.”
Now focus shifts to Saturday’s matchup against Austin Elite Rugby (0-7), which is in last place in the MLR with two points. Gold coach Nate Osborne cautioned his team about overlooking its opponent.
“The biggest thing for us is that we don’t want to be complacent,” Osborne said. “We want to give them the respect that they deserve as a professional rugby team, and we don’t want to come out flat.
“We really want to get into them, and we understand what we need to do and if move the ball around fast like we have been, hopefully everything else will take care of itself.”
In the MLR, teams receive four points for winning, two points for a draw, one bonus point for losing by seven points or fewer and one bonus point for scoring four tries or more. At the end of the season, the top four teams advance to the playoffs.
The Gold is closely followed by the reigning champion Seattle Seawolves (5-2, 25 points), Rugby United New York (5-1, 23 points), Glendale Raptors (3-2-2, 23 points) and San Diego (4-2-1, 22 points).
“We can never back down, that’s the biggest thing in this league,” Eloff said. “You can never slip up, because if you lose one or two games, you’re back out of the running for the playoffs. Just mentally, it’s a big thing for us this week — having six, seven games in a row. It’s more a mental thing than out here (at practice).
“By now we have most of our field preparation ready. We know what we want to do. We know what our plan is, so just mentally getting ready and getting up for this game that’s the biggest challenge for us.”
Osborne said the Gold wants to start fast on offense against the Elite and rely on its open-field style of attack.
“I know they’re going to come down here with the mentality of trying to shock the world,” Osborne said. “They’re going to come down here and really try and throw it around, and they’ve got nothing to lose.
“We want to truly try and start fast and put them off their game plan and put them off the way they thought they were going to beat us. We’re going to try and blow them out early; that’s the plan.”
The Gold face Austin Elite Rugby at 2 p.m. Saturday at Gold Stadium, located at Archbishop Shaw High School.