Strong-running centre Billy Meakes makes a welcome return to the LA Giltinis’ line-up amongst a host of changes for Saturday’s historic game at SoFi Stadium.
The match against the Utah Warriors from 7pm (PT) will be the first for Meakes since he fractured his cheekbone in a collision on March 28 against the Seattle Seawolves.
His return is one of seven changes to the 23-man match day squad which suffered the club’s first loss of the Major League Rugby season to Rugby United New York last Sunday.
“We are playing in an amazing stadium, far and away the world’s most modern. It’s a big deal, the players are excited and I expect a really energetic performance after the microscope we put on our loss,” head coach Darren Coleman said.
“Some big ‘ins’ in terms of players will give us a boost but more importantly we all know we have to lift our physicality at the contact points because our best plays, the flow to our attack and our tempo all come off that.
“New York came with a better attitude, were more physical and choked us out of that game. That won’t be the case this week.”
Key playmaker Matt Giteau is back at flyhalf for the 6-1 Giltinis after a knee niggle.
In the other major change to the backline, utility Luke Burton switches from inside centre to fullback to cover for the injured Glenn Bryce, who will be out for at least a month with ankle ligament damage.
In the forwards, prop JP Smith and hooker Mahe Vailanu return to the front-row. Flanker Harry McNulty’s recovery from a broken hand is timely to replace the injured Christian Poidevin while Pago Haini, back from a quadricep strain, is at No.8 for the rested Adam Ashe.
On the bench, Ma’ake Muti returns from back trouble.
Meakes’ direct running in midfield was a big part of the Giltinis’ opening two wins and his return, after missing five games, will lift the physicality that Coleman is demanding.
“I had three plates put in the cheekbone during surgery so I’m half-Terminator now,” Meakes said.
“I got back into full contact training this week and I’m ready to play.
“When you start in rugby as a little kid kicking around the sideline, you never imagine playing in the best new stadium in the world.
“For pure size and the new technology to SoFi Stadium, I don’t think there is a stadium that compares.
“We need to rock up physically for this game against Utah. All teams in MLR are getting better so you have to be on your game.”
The impressive 4-3 Warriors, second in the Western Conference, have crossed for 29 tries and are only topped by the Giltinis (44) this season.
“Utah will be good. They have the second-most lethal attack in MLR, they have flair and athleticism and are near the top for linebreaks and tackle busts,” Coleman warned.
“They’ve played in some high-scoring events so expect an exciting shootout.”
LA GILTINIS (V UTAH WARRIORS)
1 JP Smith, 2 Mahe Vailanu, 3 Charlie Abel, 4 Dave Dennis (c), 5 Corey Thomas, 6 Angus Cottrell, 7 Harry McNulty, 8 Pago Haini, 9 Harrison Goddard, 10 Matt Giteau, 11 John Ryberg, 12 Billy Meakes, 13 Adam Ashley-Cooper, 14 Ryan James, 15 Luke Burton
Replacements: 16 Sean McNulty, 17 Ma’ake Muti, 18 Blake Rogers, 19 Nathan Den Hoedt, 20 Langilangi Haupeakui , 21 Cristian Rodriguez, 22 Luke Carty, 23 DTH van der Merwe
IN: Billy Meakes, Harry McNulty, Pago Haini, Mahe Vailanu, JP Smith, Matt Giteau, Ma’ake Muti
OUT: Glenn Bryce, Adam Ashe, Christian Poidevin, Lindsey Stephens, Mafi Seanoa, Watson Filikitonga, Frikkie de Beer
The Giltinis’ match will be broadcast live on Saturday from 7pm (PT) on Bally Sports SoCal in Los Angeles and on The Rugby Network internationally.