1.Rugby New York repeats as champions
Sure, it might be easy to just look at the defending champions and say that they will repeat their success in 2023, but Rugby New York have all of the pieces to make another championship run similar to the use they went on in 2022. It really seems like James Sample is building something long term in New York.
I think a lot of people forget that they had convincing wins in the playoffs last season. They were by far the better team in the MLR Final, scoring double the number of points that the Seattle Seawolves did. They did this partly due to some incredible international talent and that looks to continue in 2023.
Only a few days ago, the team announced a huge signing for their backline. Former Maori All Blacks Teihorangi Walden will join New York for 2023, having been excellent for Taranaki in Japan in the NPC. At the moment it looks like he will be the superstar for this backline, with no sign of Nehe Milner Skudder or Waisake Naholo.
The big loss for Rugby New York is that 6ft 8in lock Will Tucker will not be returning, having signed with the Highlanders for the 2023 Super Rugby season. Tucker was a huge part of this team but he will not be there for 2023. Thankfully, reigning Forward of the Year Brendon O’Connor will be returning.
They have an incredibly physical team upfront despite some of their losses and in the back end, Andrew Coe and Ed Fidow should continue to impress and score a lot of tries. It is certainly a difficult race to call this year as there are a lot of teams who could challenge for the title. But I think that Rugby New York have the best chance of winning the title in 2023.
2.The Chicago Hounds push for the playoffs in their first season
The Dallas Jackals were the new team in the MLR in 2022 and they could not have had much worse of a season. It is very difficult for a new franchise to try to establish themselves in Major League Rugby as we saw last year but I don’t really think that Chicago will have quite as hard of a time as Dallas did.
Chicago have really benefitted from two teams folding in last years competition and it means this Hounds team has a lot of talent. Reigning two-time back of the year Bill Meakes is one of their major signings and he is a brilliant addition, with line breaking ability and lots of Super Rugby experience.
Partnering him with Bryce Campbell is a brilliant move for Chicago and they could already have the best centre partnership in Major League Rugby before the season has even started. Those two can take apart any defence and will certainly add a lot of tries to the Chicago team.
What also helps the pair is that Chicago also secured an incredibly successful fly half. Luke Carty played excellently for the LA Gilintis, so good that he made his USA debut in July 2021. At just 25 years old, Carty is a great signing for Chicago who can add value straight away as well as being their fly-half for years to come.
Their backline will also feature USA internationals Michael Baska and JP Eloff, with both players having a huge amount of success already in Major League Rugby, with Eloff being a consistent points scorer in his time In New Orleans. But it is not just their back group which is very impressive.
Internationals Lindsey Stevens and Paddy Ryan are two massive signings for the team and will be bit up front. They have also recruited a huge amount of talent from Australia, with Luke Beauchamp and Maclean Jones both having MLR experience. Chicago has a huge amount of talent.
They recently announced another exciting signing in George Thornton. Thornton has a huge amount of experience having come through the Wasps Academy in the English Premiership before a short spell with Glasgow Warriors. Thornton also has international experience with Scotland Under 20s in the Under 20s Six Nations.
It also helps that Chicago have recruited the perfect head coach. Sam Harris the perfect man to take this team forward. Harris brings with him a huge amount of experience in coaching, including two seasons as the head coach of the Austin Gilgronis. He coached one of the competitions best teams and there is no reason why he can’t turn the Hounds into a contender.
A very talented squad and excellent coach are not guarantees of success. There is a very good chance that Chicago will need some time to get going, with this team having never played together. But there is a lot of potential there.
What I see happening is that Chicago make a real run at the playoffs, particularly towards the back end of the season when the team can build some chemistry. They can make a real push towards the playoffs and will certainly be a team to look out for. I don’t see Chicago having a season similar to Dallas in 2022.
3.New England Free Jacks take a step back from title contention
New England were the best team in the regular season in 2022, finishing with four points more than any other team in Major League Rugby, as well as finishing five points ahead of their conference. They had a brilliant attack and defence but I see them taking a step back in 2023.
New England still have a very good team but a major reason for this step back is losing MLR player of the year Beaudein Waaka. That is a huge loss for New England, with Waaka’s brilliant feet and precise kicking often winning games on his own. He is going to be a big loss for New England and they will struggle to replace him.
Not only that, but New England have also lost Dougie Fife and Jack Reeves as well as some of their Kiwi players not returning for 2023. They have made an attempt to replace some of these players.
Jayson Potroz has a big job replacing Waaka, but he is a very experienced player in the NPC with Taranaki, although he does have more experience playing fullback. They have brought in a huge amount of Canadian talent and Reece MacDonald is another man who will step in to fill the void left this offseason.
The issue for New England is that losing a superstar like that will cause some issues. This is still a squad with some talent but they will not be at the top of the table come seasons end, as they were last year. They will likely still be in playoff contention, but it seems unlikely that they will contend for the title again in 2023.
4.San Diego ride the leagues most exciting attack to the playoffs
Despite losing as many games as they won last season, San Diego had a brilliant attack once again which was actually the leagues top attack, equal with the Austin Gilgronis. The Legion even scored 21 more points than New England, despite the Free Jacks finishing 19 points ahead at seasons end.
But San Diego will have a great chance of making the playoffs again. For one thing they are returning a lot of talent, headed by Ma’a Nonu. At the age of 40, Nonu will return for another season of Major League Rugby and will likely be the teams captain once again.
Not only that, but the back division is going to be bolstered by some talent coming from Los Angeles. Luke Burton and Marcel Brache are making the move to San Diego. Mikey Te’o will also be returning from the Utah Warriors to help marshal this backline that features a player to look out for.
Filimoni Waqainabete is a name to look out for in 2023, likely to be joining Nonu in the centres. I think with Nonu alongside him he will be a brilliant addition for the Legion. The explosive Fijian has a lot of high level rugby experience, initially starting out in the NPC with Canterbury and then in a short spell with the Panasonic Wild Knights.
This is a recipe for an excellent attack and there are some interesting changes up front. The scrum coach is a crucial position for this team and they have certainly got the right man for the job. Alex Corbisiero will be the Legion’s scrum coach for 2023, having previously worked with the Los Angeles Giltinis.
They are losing some power upfront after Chris Robshaw announced his retirement and Paddy Ryan announced he would be moving to the Chicago Hounds. Ben Mitchell is another big loss for this team but I think this is a San Diego team that can make a run at the playoffs.
You would imagine that they will have a much easier time considering there will be no Austin Gilgronis and LA Giltinis in their conference, which means the road to the playoffs should be considerably easier. In an easier conference, with some big players joining the team I believe that they can push for the playoffs once again.
5.Mitch Jacobson becomes the signing of the season
Mitch Jacobson is a massive signing for New England in 2023 and I think he impresses almost immediately. If you don’t know anything about Jacobson then you are missing out on a phenomenal player who I think will impress very quickly.
A product of the University of Waikato, Mitch is the older brother of All Black Luke Jacobson. Mitch was a massive talent coming through the Waikato academy and he was even a member of the New Zealand team that won the 2015 IRB Junior World Championship.
He made his Waikato debut that same year and has been a consistent performer in the NPC ever since. He was even made Waikato captain. Despite that, Jacobson never really got the chance in Super Rugby. He played a couple of the games for the Chiefs as an injury replacement, playing for the Sunwolves in the 2020 competition.
He is brilliant over the ball as well as being a strong ball carrier. He is incredibly exciting and at 27, it is likely we have not even seen the best of Jacobson yet. So I think he hits the ground running, considering New England already have a good team around him. I think Mitch steps in and excels pretty quickly.
6.Dallas Jackals finally win a game
I mean this is not necessarily the biggest statement to make. Dallas were really bad last year and they are certainly not going to make a huge jump forward in 2023. But they have certainly set themselves up to finally claim that elusive win.
It starts at the top, with Agustin Cavalieri taking over as the teams new head coach. He will be partnered by Mario Ledesma and Willie Blanco, bringing a new Argentinian feel to this Dallas team. They have been able to add some big players despite seeing English players Henry Trinder and Chris Pennell depart.
Due to being the worst team in the MLR last season they have added Sam Golla with the first pick of the collegiate draft, with the lock coming in from Cal Berkeley. As well as that there is also incoming Tomas Baravalle who has a lot of top flight experience having played for Benetton in Italy.
This Dallas team were not miles off a victory last season but they should certainly be better this season. There are quite a few good additions as well as the returning players having some Major League Rugby experience under their belt, something they did not have last season.
Guys like Kyle Steeves, Pedro Imhoff and Martin Elias will all be brilliant additions that should improve this team. Dallas might not be massively successful, but I don’t see them having another winless season in 2023.
7.New Orleans make a proper push for the playoffs
The Eastern Conference once again looks very difficult this season and there are a lot of talented teams. But I think that the New Orleans Gold are in the right place to make a big step forward in 2023, considering they were very off the pace in 2022.
The Gold have never made the playoffs in their five years in Major League Rugby, finishing last season with just four wins compared to 12 losses. It is a pretty bad record and the Gold had the second worst attack in the league. But there is a lot the team has done to fix that.
The attack is headed by Carlos Spencer, with the legendary All Black being the Gold’s assistant coach for next season, with Kane Thompson returning as head coach. They have added some big additions as well as some important returning players.
Rodney Iona is a highly experienced Super Rugby Fly-half who will spearhead the Gold attack in 2023. New halfback Luke Campbell also comes in with a lot of experience in New Zealand. Dougie Fife is a good addition in the backline, helping to fill the hole left by JP Eloff who moved to the Hounds.
The Gold have always had a lot of talent upfront, keeping hold of most of the front row from last season. With some consistency upfront and a new energised attack, the Gold can make a real playoff push and are set up for success moving forward.
8.Tavite Lopeti gets international attention
This prediction is both good and bad for fans of the Seattle Seawolves. I think Tavite Lopeti will build on a brilliant 2022 MLR season that saw him win the rookie of the year award.
Lopeti is a phenomenal player, having grown up playing basketball and football in California. He had a breakout 2022 Major League Rugby season, being a crucial part of the Seattle back group that took the Seawolves all the way to the MLR Championship Final. What Seattle fans will love is that he will still only be 24 at the end of the 2023 season.
I am predicting that he will continue this form in 2023, scoring more tries and helping Seattle back to the playoffs. Having already made his international debut with the US, I think Lopeti will only gain more attention going into 2023 which will be great for Seattle.
I think this attention means that it could be Lopeti’s last season in Major League Rugby. If he continues his form of 2022, you would imagine there will be at least one European club looking to give him a go. The MLR still does not have the same pull as the top flight of Europe and so I think Lopeti will be excellent enough to gather some European or Super Rugby attention.