Why the San Diego Legion Have to Move on Quickly from Their 2021 Campaign
In 2020, the San Diego Legion set Major League Rugby alight by winning all five of their regular season games before Covid-19 put an end to the season.
After 12 months of waiting prior to their return to competitive action, San Diego finished with a 6-10 record. Having to decamp on a number of occasions during the season, the Californians finished fourth in the Western Conference, 19 points away from the postseason.
This offseason has seen numerous changes to the team, with a number of high-profile signings having been announced, a new stadium and a new head coach making their way to the city.
THOUGHTS ON 2021
Missing out on the playoffs was a first for San Diego. In 2019, the club narrowly missed out on winning the Shield thanks to a last-minute Brad Tucker try, a score that handed the Seattle Seawolves a second MLR title.
2021 was a difficult season in many ways for the Legion, who found themselves playing home games in Las Vegas, two venues in Los Angeles and two more in San Diego.
27-year-old hooker, Pete Malcolm, who joined Legion ahead of the 2020 season - bringing experiences acquired with the national team and while calling Austin home - believes the consistent state of transition off the field may have contributed to some of the poor form on it.
"It was one of those years where you never really feel settled anywhere," Malcolm said. "We had to move to Vegas for two months and that was difficult because we didn't have our normal support system or our headquarters.
"We did the best we could with the circumstances, and we came together as a team as best we could and unfortunately it didn't get a lot easier as the season went on.
"You add on to all that some injuries; I would say we were disappointed with the results last year. 6-10 is not where we wanted to be at all, but it is the kind of thing you have got to let go.
"Professional sport is one of those things where you have got to move on quickly. You can't let that sit in the back of our minds. We are going to have a lot of new faces in the squad, and we have just got to look forward to the new season."
WHAT TO EXPECT IN 2022
The first of San Diego's offseason announcements was that former All Black scrum-half, Danny Lee, had been instated as the team's new Head Coach and Director of Rugby. Having coached in Japan and New Zealand since calling it a day on his playing career, following Lee's appointment was when a string of player signings were announced.
Pete Malcolm was the first, closely followed by that of Nate Sylvia and then USA Eagle, Will Hooley. All Black legend Ma'a Nonu was the next major announcement, the center returning to South California having played for the team briefly in 2020.
"You hear that Ma'a Nonu is coming back to your club, a guy like Will Hooley who is a quality man and rugby player, it gives you a huge amount of confidence and to turn what happened last season into a positive this season," Malcolm said.
"You add onto that Danny being a former All Black and from the contact I have had with him so far, it has made me very excited to work with him.
"They don't just hand out those All Blacks caps to just anybody, so I am really excited to work with him and the rest of the new players coming through."
More international experience in the form of Nate Augspurger, Mike Smith and Ryan Matyas, while Joe Pietersen, Tiaan Loots, Bjorn Basson and Dan Pryor have been announced as returning, and Rohan O'Regan, Hencus van Wyk and Benjamin Grant are arrivals from overseas.
Danny Lee's first campaign will see San Diego open the year with three consecutive home games. Opponents will come in the form of the Utah Warriors, the Dallas Jackals and then the Seattle Seawolves.
Now playing home games at the San Diego State University Sports Deck, the Cohort will have to acclimatize to new surroundings quickly. Beating Utah two times in 2021 and beating Seattle the once, there is certainly cause for optimism for Malcolm who is also looking forward to welcoming the league's newest side, Dallas.
"Considering it is a three-game home stint, you would be expecting to win those games," Malcolm said. "Because, you are at home for all those games and any successful playoff push starts with being good at home and getting off to a good start.
"It is hard to dig yourself out of a hole in a league of this quality. Coming up against Utah will be a good, physical challenge. Their pack is always a tough one to stop at the gain line and with the backs they have in Mikey (Te'o) and Mika (Kruse), it will be a real challenge for our team.
"It will be good to get that marker down. You want to know where you are right at the beginning of the season, and nothing is going to test you like Utah."
COMING TO SAN DIEGO
Will Hooley brings with him international experience and 10 years spent in professional rugby environments, the versatile back has represented English Premiership clubs Northampton Saints, Exeter Chiefs and Saracens prior to his move across the North Atlantic.
Arriving in San Diego in early December, Hooley's anticipation for the 2022 campaign has been growing steadily, the 28-year-old is expecting a reaction from his new teammates after their troubles the year before.
"I'm coming into a team that I am sure was disappointed with how things went last year, and knowing the guys who were here last year, they want to put things right," Hooley said.
"They have been at this club for a while, and they want to get San Diego back on track. One of the other things about heading to San Diego is that the team has got a great fan base and that will only grow.
"The attraction is that the club wants to achieve and has a little bit of hurt from the year before and that is only going to get everyone riled up and ready to go for this season."
Leaving Saracens during the summer, Hooley's arrival in San Diego will add to an already impressive back line. With the added motivation of gaining more USA caps and a place at the 2023 Rugby World Cup, he says the game's growth in North America was another reason he decided to play his domestic rugby in the USA.
"Having been professional for however long, and as a rugby fan, I do worry about where the game is going globally," Hooley said.
"Particularly in the UK, as a product, do I really think it is attractive? Not at all. So, where do I think the biggest growth and the most attractive part of our game is at the moment? 100%, it is in the U.S.
"The prospect of what MLR can be and what it is at the moment, I just think the projection of the competition is through the roof. As a player, now coming towards the backend of my career, I am excited to be a part of it.
"You see these stars from overseas come over, which adds a little bit of spice, extra competitiveness and extra quality, it proves that the growth of the game is definitely happening.
"It is extremely exciting and something I have always had my eye on, because I always knew I wanted to jump on at some point and I have decided to do that now."
Written by Joe Harvey
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