New York City has a championship caliber team on its hands — and no, it’s not the Yankees or Mets.
Rugby New York is preparing set to face off against the Seattle Seawolves in the Major League Rugby championship game on Saturday at Red Bull Arena. Coverage of the nationally televised battle will begin on Fox at 12 p.m. Eastern.
The league, now in its fifth season, constitutes the highest level of rugby competition on American soil. What began as seven teams has now evolved to 13 scattered across major markets in the United States and Canada.
For New York and Seattle, the road to a chance at the MLR Shield — an 80-pound trophy made of carbon and titanium steel — has not been easy. The 16 game, 18-week season has been rife with punishing hits, shocking scandals and improbable upsets.
Coming off a strong regular season in which they finished 11-5 and third in the Eastern Conference, Rugby New York entered the postseason looking to win their first playoff game since MLR’s inaugural season in 2018. After losing consecutive conference championships in 2019 and 2021, CEO Ric Salizzo and his team were determined to make a deep run in 2022.
“When you lose two conference finals in the last second by one or two points, it starts to hurt you, and when it hurts you learn,” Salizzo told The Post. “When we went on to the playoffs this year, we were pretty determined that didn’t happen again.”
Sure enough, New York defeated Rugby ATL 26-19 in the Eastern Eliminator. Rugby ATL was the same team that ousted Rugby New York from the playoffs last year. One week later, New York upset the No. 1 seed New England Free Jacks — who led the league in points and wins — 24-16 in the Eastern Conference final.
Just like that, Rugby New York punched their ticket to the championship game. Before settling into JFK Stadium in Hoboken this season, Salizzo struggled to even find a place for his team to play.
“At the beginning of last season, we were digging ourselves out of snow so we could find somewhere to train,” Salizzo said. “We didn’t have a ground because of COVID — it closed off all the grounds where we normally played.
“Here we are now getting ready to run out on Red Bull Stadium and play in the MLR championship final. So it’s been a really interesting journey with lots of twists and turns, but … it’s led us to the right place.”
Seattle’s journey to this point was even more unlikely. The Seawolves were mathematically eliminated from playoff contention following a lackluster 9-7 season, but received a miracle berth after Austin Gilgronis and L.A. Giltinis were disqualified for undisclosed rules violations. Seattle, the 2018 and 2019 champ, didn’t let their golden opportunity go to waste, reaching the championship by beating the San Diego Legion 43-19 and the Houston SaberCats 46-27.
“They’re going to be a hell of an opponent,” Salizzo said of the Seawolves. “They’ve got a big powerful group of forwards … and really fast, exciting backs, so we know we’ve got a real challenge on our hands.”
Salizzo knows, however, that his guys will be up to the test. Rugby New York sports many formidable stars, including Rugby World Cup Champion Andy Ellis, New Zealand-born Will Tucker (who’s set to face off against his brother Brad in the championship) and homegrown talents Connor Buckley, John Powers and Nick Civetta. For Civetta, a Scarsdale native, playing for his hometown team is a dream come true.
“I always had it in the back of my mind that if I could play at home, I would absolutely jump at the opportunity,” Civetta said. “So to have professional rugby here and to be around family has been great, and I’ve really enjoyed every moment of it.”
Playing alongside Buckley and Powers, longtime residents of Rockaway, Queens, and Xavier High School graduates, is icing on the cake.
“They add so much New York flavor to the team,” Civetta said. “You can see them improving week in week out. They’ve been so impressive, and occasionally they bring in bagels, which makes me happy and keeps the boys happy.”
It remains to be seen if celebratory New York bagels are in store Saturday night.