A couple of weeks ago, the San Diego Legion traveled to New Orleans to play the host Gold on an overgrown weed patch of a field on a high school campus.
No wonder, then, that Legion head coach Rob Hoadley calls the walk down the ramp and into USD’s Torero Stadium the best stroll in Major League Rugby.
The Legion arrived on Sunday to a large and boisterous crowd, announced at 4,175 on Military Appreciation Day, and in beating visiting New Orleans 22-10 to close out the regular season at the top of the standings, they guaranteed themselves at least one more match on their pristine home surface.
“It’s absolutely massive,” Hoadley said of the ability of the Legion (12-3-1) to host fourth-place Rugby Union New York (11-5-0) in the MLR semifinals at 2 p.m. on Sunday at Torero Stadium.
A Legion victory in that game would lead to San Diego playing at home in the league final, against either No. 2 seed Seattle (11-4-1) or No. 3 Toronto (11-5-0).
A year ago, San Diego and Torero Stadium were the pre-selected site for the MLR championship, but it didn’t involve the Legion because they lost to eventual champion Seattle in the semifinals. The league decided this year to put the title match in the city of the highest-seeded team in the final.
The Legion control their destiny and will play at a site in which they lost just one game this season — the opener against expansion RUNY on a controversial try awarded the visitors in the closing seconds. (San Diego avenged that defeat by beating RUNY on its home field.)
“You could see the amount of support today,” Legion captain Joe Pietersen said. “This was our biggest crowd in MLR, and it plays a massive role in the impact of our boys. The vibe and the festivities were tangible.”
On Sunday, the match seemingly turned on a single play by a new arrival who can’t help but stand out on the field.
In the 37th minute, Italian lock Josh Furno — who is 6 feet 7, 270 pounds, with shoulder-length black hair — burst into the gap as one Gold player tried to pass to another. He intercepted the ball, charged into the open field, and eventually made a pass to Fijian Olympic Sevens gold medalist Jasa Veremalua, who sprinted in for a try that gave the Legion a 14-3 lead.
“You don’t get too many opportunities like that,” Furno said with a smile. “I’m not the fastest guy on the team. I was immediately looking for support.”
The Legion signed Furno early in the year, but visa problems prevented the 31-year-old from getting here until a couple of weeks ago. He has 37 caps with the Italian national team, giving him more international appearances than any other player in MLR.
“You can see how cool, calm and composed he is,” Hoadley said. “He was fantastic for us. He’s here now and has helped us straight away. Maybe he’s got more energy than everybody else.”
With that big gain, the Legion are hoping they didn’t suffer a significant loss on Sunday when dynamic fullback Mikey Te’o went down with a right ankle injury in the second half. Te’o had to be helped from the field and was taken to the locker room in a cart with his foot heavily taped.
“It may not be as bad as we first feared,” Hoadley said.
The Legion held the highest-scoring team in the league to an early penalty kick and a breakaway try on a turnover.
San Diego got its first score when tight-head lock Paddy Ryan powered in for a try in the 32nd minute. The Legion added to their halftime lead with a 44th-minute try by JP Du Plessis. Pietersen added a penalty kick for the final score.