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RFCLA Looking To Win Last Home Match Against NOLA Gold

6 2 24 GMR 4
4 weeks ago

Rugby Football Club Los Angeles have announced the starting line-up for their match against the New Orleans Gold in Week 16 of the 2024 Major League Rugby season on June 16, kicking off at 3 p.m. local time (PST), at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California.

Following a hard-fought match against the Houston SaberCats, the Western Conference leaders, RFCLA need a win in their last home match of the season to remain in playoff contention, with a 4-8-1 record and only three games left.

RFCLA hooker Ben Strang, 23, will be in the reserves this week, as Alex Maughan moves into the No. 2 position, and he knows the lineout performance as well as the substitutes will be crucial to victory. “There have been some games where it’s been excellent and some games where it hasn’t been up to scratch,” said Strang, who is 5’ 11” and 220 lbs, of his success rate. “The lineout is something that takes a lot of connection… where timing, lifting [and] jumping all have to be right to get it right,” he explained. “We’re a new team this year… You’re going to struggle with certain things. We’ve worked extremely hard at it.”

When Strang and his forwards have gotten the lineouts right, they’ve created opportunities for flanker Matt Heaton (No. 7), No. 8 Semi Kunatani and lock Jason Damm to break through and score. Strang has made a few impressive runs himself following short passes back after the initial catch, and he has also stayed out on the wing after the ball has been spun out to the backs and then switched back to his side. These strategic plays have led to big gains and some tries for RFCLA, as have the reserves. Last week against the Houston SaberCats, several substitutes came on late for RFCLA and made some spectacular breakaways but their impact proved too little too late.

Strang was born in Annapolis, Maryland, on December 23, 2001. His parents are from New Zealand, and he moved to the South Pacific nation when he was two years old. At five years old, he started playing rugby for a local club in a town called Wanganui. He played flanker until his last two years of high school, when he shifted to hooker. He made the New Zealand Schools team, and signed with New Zealand club Manawatu. “That was where I really got to understand what it takes to be a professional, to understand what those top guys do to play consistently every week,” Strang said. One of his role models at Manawatu was Jason Emery, who is now also a teammate at RFCLA.

In late 2022, Strang was looking for opportunities, and spoke with Te Rangatira Waitokia, a close friend who had left Manawatu the year before to sign with Rugby ATL. Waitokia, who now plays in the backfield for Anthem RC, told Strang that their hooker was heading back to South Africa. Strang already had a US passport, and thought the MLR was too good an opportunity to pass up. “I got in touch with the coaches [at Rugby ATL], and they asked ‘Are you interested in coming over?’ and I thought, ‘Why not give it a crack?’” Strang said.

Having played top tier rugby in New Zealand, Strang had the experience to make an early impact in the MLR, but being only 21, he turned to his veteran teammates — some of whom hail from the Americas — for leadership. “A bunch of experienced guys made me feel very welcome,” Strang said. “Jason Damm, Matt Heaton — guys like that. I really enjoyed my time there,” he said. In New Zealand, he had never started a match as a professional, so his first professional start came last season against NOLA Gold. He was immediately impressed with US rugby. “One thing I’ve learned from the American boys is they are bloody tough,” he said. “In New Zealand, you grow up with the rugby ball and you’re blessed with that. But when you come over here, you learn how physical these boys are.”

When Rugby ATL — including many of the coaches — moved to Los Angeles after last season to become RFCLA, Strang signed on. “It’s been one of the best decisions I’ve made in my rugby career,” he said. “As a bit of a journeyman, it’s been really nice to wear that No. 2 jersey week in and week out, and get stuck in there with the lads. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed it.”

“It’s pretty special to look back at a young kid growing up in a small town in New Zealand, to get paid to play the game I love in a different country, to have played with some of the best players,” Strang said. “It feels like the other day I walked out of the school gates.”

Ben Strang

The RFCLA hooker had a strong defensive performance last week with 14 tackles, and hopes to repeat it against NOLA Gold. With 145 tackles so far this season, Strang is ranked seventh in the league; Damm is ranked third with 150.

“I’m very proud of the journey and can’t wait for it to continue on,” Strang said. Sunday is Father's Day, and Strang’s parents, Mike and Anna, will be in the stands in Carson, watching their son take the next step of that journey.

RFCLA have made some changes to their starting XV this week: Wilton Rebollo makes his first start at prop (No. 1) in the place of Dane Zander; Alex Maughan moves to hooker (No. 2) instead of Ben Strang and Conor Young starts at tighthead prop (No. 3). Max Katjijeko and Jason Damm take the lock positions (No. 4 and 5) as Reagan O’Gorman sits this match out. Bruce Yun starts at flanker (no. 6); Sean Nolan starts at fly-half (No. 10) with Jason Emery moving back to inside center (No. 12); Henry Speight replaces Jack Shaw at wing (No. 11) and Rory Van Vugt starts at full-back (No. 15) instead of James Stokes.

RFCLA’s starting lineup for June 16, 2024, against NOLA Gold:

1. Wilton Rebollo (Prop)

2. Alex Maughan (Hooker)

3. Conor Young (Prop)

4. Max Katjijeko (Lock)

5. Jason Damm (Lock)

6. Bruce Yun (Flanker)

7. Matt Heaton (C) (Flanker)

8. Semi Kunatani (No. 8)

9. Tasman Smith (Scrum-half)

10. Sean Nolan (Fly-Half)

11. Henry Speight (Wing)

12. Jason Emery (Inside Center)

13. Will Leonard (Outside Center)

14. Andrew Coe (Wing)

15. Rory Van Vugt (Full-back)

Reserves:

16. Ben Strang (Hooker)

17. Alessandro Heaney (Prop)

18. Dane Zander (Prop)

19. Liam Antrobus (Lock)

20. James Stokes (Flanker)

21. Niall Saunders (Scrum-half)

22. Jack Shaw (Back)

23. Austin White (Back)

Sunday’s match will be streamed live on The Rugby Network and Bally Socal and broadcast on YurView, starting at 3pm local time (PST.)

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