The LA Giltinis returned to winning ways tonight in the nine-try spectacle that christened SoFi Stadium as a first-time venue for Major League Rugby.
The Giltinis beat a tough and spirited Utah Warriors outfit 38-27 to build their imposing position to 7-1 at the top of MLR’s Western Conference standings.
The stadium was as much a star as any player with a fast surface and state-of-the-art spectator facilities under the translucent roof for the first crowd game for professional sport at the new multi-billion arena.
The Saturday night occasion was a superb show of MLR’s potential and the forward-thinking of Giltinis’ management to take a game to the stadium which will host Super Bowl LVI on February 13.
The Giltinis built a matchwinning 31-8 lead at the 50-minute mark before the bench was emptied over the final period to give the finishers valuable game time.
Try doubles to classy scrumhalf Harrison Goddard and flanker Angus Cottrell set up the Giltinis, who also had Matt Giteau’s five-from-five goalkicking to keep the lead purring along.
Cottrell was non-stop with his link play and presence on the ball and is now MLR’s leading tryscorer (nine). He was a worthy winner of the players’ player of the day award.
“The club did a great job putting this occasion together, our biggest crowd of the year was right into it and we delivered a much better performance,” Giltinis head coach Darren Coleman said.
“We had a big improvement in physicality compared to the loss to New York a week earlier. The effort and desire was higher for sure.
“Tighthead prop Charlie Abel is playing 70-plus minutes every week. He’s a warhorse and the scrum stood up in a good battle.
“For (flanker) Harry McNulty to play 80 minutes in his first game for a month was outstanding and Ryan James, on the wing, is getting better and better.
“The Warriors are the best team we have played this year for the big, physical ball-carries and shifting of the ball they kept coming at us with.”
The Giltinis were on the scoreboard at the two-minute mark when Goddard snuck over with a ruckbase dart.
The chance came from a well-worked lineout play with No.8 Pago Haini running strongly under the new head of platinum blond hair he discovered during his injury lay-off.
The Warriors bounced back strongly and the try to hooker Samo Malolo was the best scored against the Giltinis all season as a sustained raid of direct running and sure passing.
The Giltinis led just 10-8 until the 25-minute mark when impressive Californian winger James changed the game.
His kick ahead bounced awkwardly but straight into the arms of the chasing Goddard, who scored his second try for 17-8.
Hooker Mahe Vailanu made a strong comeback from injury, swooping on several loose balls at the back of lineouts, contesting physically and making a big turnover tackle on Warriors halfback Michael Baska.
It was hustle that was often missing in the lukewarm 18-16 loss to Rugby United New York a week earlier because the Giltinis definitely cranked up their physicality.
Winger John Ryberg made two superb bumping runs through defenders when returning kicks in the first half but it was balanced by a missed tackle when the Warriors scored during their second half rally.
A deserved try looked to be his late in the first half but he lost his grip on the ball over the line and a try when begging with no proper grounding.
Referee Derek Summers initially awarded a try but the remarkable “Oculus”, above the field, with its bank of multiple video boards changed his mind.
There is no video review system in operation in the MLR to settle lineball decisions or groundings so this truly was a case of state-of-the-act technology being too good to ignore.
“I can’t ignore it. There’s like 12 screens here, all freaking out,” Summers said of viewing Ryberg losing control of the ball 30cm above the ground.
The determined Giltinis won a penalty from the resultant scrum for a knock-on, kicked to touch for a lineout and Cottrell ultimately burrowed over for the first of his two pick-and-go tries.
Lock Corey Thomas used the same method to score for 31-8 after half-time.
Centre Billy Meakes made a fine comeback after missing five matches with a cheekbone fracture.
He was ready for heavy contact, as always, because he produced two trysaving tackles in as many minutes to opening the second half. He tackled the full 233lb of Malolo front-on and held him up over the tryline on the first occasion.
The crowd for the game was sold out as ticket sales were exhasuted. Nearly that many enjoyed the spectacle, including one LA Chargers’ fan who’d never been to a rugby game in his life but was determined to be at Sofi Stadium when it opened for fans.
That really was the success of the night in opening the eyes of sports’ fans to follow the Giltinis.
LA GILTINIS 38
Tries: Harrison Goddard (2 min, 26), Angus Cottrell (49, 72), Corey Thomas (50)
Conversions: Matt Giteau (2, 26, 39, 50), Luke Carty (72)
Penalty goals: Matt Giteau (16)
UTAH WARRIORS 27
Tries: Sama Malolo (5), James Vaifale (58), Jurie Van Vuren (69), Lance Williams (82)
Conversions: Calvin Whiting (69), Mikey Te’o (82)
Penalty Goals: Hagen Schulte (10)
Half-time: 24-8 Giltinis