The Free Jacks put another notch in New England’s national championship belt Saturday after going back and forth in an 80-minute showdown against the San Diego Legion.
After securing a franchise-first playoff win last weekend, the Free Jacks underscored their 16-2 season with the team’s first Major League Rugby Championship Shield in a 25-24 victory over the Legion in Bridgeview, Ill.
Inside center Le Roux Malan scored the game-winning try with five minutes left when he took a go-ahead pass from John Poland. Fly-half Jayson Potroz, who was recognized as the Player of the Match, booted the game ball into the stands to close out the match as time expired.
Free Jacks general manager Tom Kindley hoped the impressive win will “shift the needle” to bring rugby the attention the sport and the six-year-old Quincy-based MLR franchise deserves.
“New England only accepts championships,” Kindley said, “so I think for us to go the whole way is massive in terms of building a bigger audience and getting heard about, and people finding out there’s another pro sports team in Quincy.”
Entering the contest as the top two teams in the league, it looked as though New England might dominate San Diego (16-2) in the early going with a scoring try from flanker Mitch Jacobson just four minutes into the game. Fly-half Jayson Potroz made the two-point conversion kick to give the Free Jacks a 7-0 lead.
San Diego flanker Christian Poidevin found a hole in the New England defense and scored the Legion’s first try just under the 10-minute mark.
Potroz dampened the opposition’s hopes with two consecutive penalty kicks. He proved a standout fly-half all season, ranking as the league’s scoring leader.
San Diego wing Nate Augspurger made it a one-point game after scoring a 30-meter try.
Running up against the halftime clock, Will Hooley made San Diego’s lead more comfortable with a three-point kick, taking the Legion to a 17-13 lead at the half.
The evenly matched teams ended the first half with a 50-50 split of territory and possession time.
Just five minutes into the second half, New England wing Paula Balekana scored a try off a long-range pass from scrumhalf John Poland to regain the lead, 20-17, with Potroz’s two-point conversion.
But the Legion, with plenty left in the tank, held the line and broke through when Augspurger tallied his second try of the match in the 61st minute. It allowed the Legion to reclaim the lead, 24-20.
San Diego suffered a crucial injury when Hooley pulled up with a hamstring injury, forcing the Legion to send in replacement fly-half fullback Josh Henderson for a penalty kick. Henderson missed his mark, enabling the Free Jacks to remain within striking distance.
After several minutes of consecutive phases around the 5-meter line, Malan scored the winning try with just five minutes left.
New England is 29-6 over the last two seasons, having lost to New York in last year’s Eastern Conference Final.
Kindley cited increased depth and stronger team leadership as factors that pushed the Free Jacks over the edge this season.
“We’re definitely really proud to represent New England and to be a New England sports team,” Kindley said. “Hopefully New England sports can sort of see that today and be like ‘Man, that’s a team I want to get behind.’ ”