MATT HARMON: OPENING WEEKS, LIGHTING THE FIRE & REPAYING FAITH
Written by Joe Harvey | Photos by Craig Boudreaux
Coming off the back of their first bye week, the NOLA Gold are looking to pick up their first win of the season this Friday night on the road to the Seattle Seawolves.
Losing their opening three games at the hands of the New England Free Jacks, Rugby ATL and Toronto Arrows, their most recent defeat coming at the hands of the Toronto Arrows, the Canadians coming back from 23-13 down to win 23-14, Sam Malcolm kicking the visiting side to victory.
USA Eagles prop forward, Matt Harmon, has started in each of those games and spoke to majorleague.rugby about the season so far, moving forward and the Rise of Rugby.
BYE WEEK REFLECTIONS
Tuesday saw the beginning of Mardi Gras in New Orleans. But while thousands have descended upon the city to enjoy the celebrations, the NOLA Gold’s plans for this week are somewhat different.
So far this year, the side has been on the receiving end of three defeats. Opening their season with back-to-back home games, it is not the start to the season that Kane Thompson’s side would have wanted, their objective of reaching the postseason for the first time seeming even harder than first anticipated.
Now having had a weekend off to look back on the opening three games of the season, Matt Harmon says the time off has allowed the group to evaluate what they must do moving forward.
“It actually gave us time to step back and look at what specifically was causing the problems and gave us time to put more attention towards those things,” Harmon said.
“I don’t think it was a lack of effort. Defensively we were there, we were hitting, we were energized and especially in the last two games, you have to look at those and ask what small things we can do differently, because they were close games.
“After the first game, we looked at it and said we should be a little meaner. We needed to hit a lot harder in clear-outs, come up faster in defense. In week two we corrected that and now it is just a point of really finding our way.
“I think getting everyone firing in the same way [going forward]. We had some injuries early on, guys were filling in at new roles, so just getting everyone on the same page, flowing correctly, that is probably the biggest change along with individual execution.”
It was the game against Toronto that showed the most promise. Having been largely dominant before momentum swung the Arrows’ way, Harmon says that there have been no problems with the players’ efforts to start the season, believing that what stands between the side and success is a low error count.
“We talked a lot as a team [about positives], and it was really everybody’s attitude and energy coming into the games,” Harmon said. “I don’t think you could fault anybody on the team’s work ethic.
“Guys were working, guys were moving, especially against Atlanta and Toronto, they were stalemate games for the most of it. We played a lot of phases, and our set piece was doing pretty well.
“We had some trouble with the scrum in Toronto, but overall, we have been retaining the ball well from our set piece, it has just been in open play where mistakes happened, and we need to fix that.”
A FIRST TRIP AWAY OF THE SEASON
In each completed season of MLR, the Gold have flirted with the playoffs throughout the season, but never quite found themselves in contention for the Shield once the regular season has come to an end.
Having focused on the development of local talent and largely keeping the same roster on board year by year, Harmon believes that their experiences in years gone by and their start to this campaign can inspire them from this point onwards.
“We are a team where we have always been right on the cusp of the playoffs, we look at this as the time we need to get it together,” Harmon said.
“Last season we fumbled it around the middle [of 2021], and even though we went five out of six at the end of the season [on the road], it still wasn’t quite enough. We are looking at this as a slow start that we didn’t really need.
“Now is when we really need to start. It is lighting a fire and saying that we can’t wait until the end of the season, because we have tried to do that before this, and that has never worked for us.”
Opponents this weekend come in the form of Seattle. Playing four games so far this season, the Seawolves find themselves third in the Western Conference, having won their first three games of the 2022 season, last weekend seeing the team lose to the Austin Gilgronis in Washington.
Last season, when on the hunt for the playoffs, NOLA had six away games to end the season. In that run the side went to the LA Memorial Coliseum and upset eventual champions the LA Giltinis, heading home victorious on five occasions, their only loss coming at the hands of Seattle.
A look at how the Eastern Conference ended, it was a result that was decisive. Two points adrift of Rugby New York, it is the memory of last season and their start to the new league year that will motivate them going into this week.
“I am very excited, I think the guys are too,” Harmon said. “It is the first away trip of the season, it is always a fun one for the boys and it is a far trip, which I think are the better ones sometimes.
“It makes guys really rally around each other and there are not too many better environments than a Friday night at Starfire. They usually have as good a crowd as you’ll see in MLR.
“I know some of the guys are excited to have the away trip, and there is a bit of a buzz coming off last season where on the road we finished really well, and Seattle was the one game out of six where we couldn’t get the job done. We are looking at it as we have got to go and take this one.”
RISE OF RUGBY
Born and raised in Lake Forest, Illinois, Harmon’s rise of rugby is very much a story of its own. While playing for the Lake Forest Harriers, the prop won consecutive Illinois State Championships before attending the University of Kansas in 2015 prior to transferring to Life University.
During his time in Georgia the 26-year-old achieved Collegiate All-American honors and won the D1A National Championship. Joining NOLA in 2019, Harmon quickly became a regular at the Gold Mine, his continuous effort and growth earning him an international call up, making his debut against England in the summer of 2021.
It has been a tale of continuous hard work, the prop having challenged himself each step of the way.
“Growing up, we didn’t have those same channels; youth rugby wasn’t so readily available, so for me I think I was in the right place at the right time, finishing college right when MLR was starting, so I was pretty lucky that I was able to transition straight from college,” Harmon said.
“NOLA gave me a shot, and it was a case of working hard, wanting to play for NOLA, playing for my team, and then hearing that the USA was interested, I was asking myself what I had to do to take that next step.
“I guess the last few years have really been about me trying to do the best I can for NOLA. They were the ones that gave me a shot right out of college, and I have always felt the need of paying them back by being consistent and being a good rugby player.
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