OSBORNE AND TONGA’UIHA AHEAD OF NOLA’S LATEST PUSH FOR THE POSTSEASON
Written by Joe Harvey | Photo by Craig Boudreaux
As the countdown to the 2022 season continues, the NOLA Gold’s Nate Osborne and Moni Tonga’uiha spoke to Major League Rugby correspondent Joe Harvey, about their brushes with the playoffs and their ambition for the new season.
One recurring feature of NOLA Gold’s four completed MLR seasons is how close the side has come to reaching the playoffs.
In 2018, the Louisianans were merely five points from the postseason, in 2019 just the one point and in 2021 were merely two points away from Rugby New York.
Finishing third in the Eastern Conference in 2022 would see the Gold reach the playoffs for the first time in their history, but for now the team must learn from their efforts last season to gain a long fought for shot at the MLR Shield.
Winning 10 games last season, the club lost on just five occasions and drew their opening game of the season against Old Glory DC.
With a better record than New York at the regular seasons end, the difference was the amount of bonus points that the team picked up, the teams head coach, Nate Osborne, believing his team needed to be bolder in their ambition.
“I think one of the things we really struggled with at times was our confidence to go for more points and go for tries,” Osborne told majorleague.rugby.
“You can look back at games and you can look back at the San Diego (43-17 loss) and the Seattle (30-6 loss) games where we got soundly beaten, but I think the ones that really stick out for me were Austin, we had them on the ropes, leading them by two with a minute to go and we gave them an opportunity (NOLA lost 15-18).
“You look at games like New England in New England, we had a howling wind at our back, and we led 17-9 with about 20 minutes to go and instead of going to the corner, we took a 40m penalty goal shot, and I think that played a little bit into our mindset
“In years past we would have always gone to the corner and backed ourselves to score those tries, so that is something we needed to pull out of the boys a bit this year, to get back to that style of really backing themselves and saying that if we get down there, we are going to score tries.”
Osborne is the only original coach from MLR’s inaugural season and numerous members of his squad are also approaching their fifth season in gold and white quarters.
Injured for much of 2018, Moni Tonga’uiha has very much made himself into a crowd favorite at the Gold Mine. Now, moving into the team’s fifth season, the 27-year-old says that he feels as though he and his teammates have not been at all far from success.
Photo by Craig Boudreaux
“There have been three years in a row now, where we did come up short, but we did have a good enough team to go all the way,” Tonga’uiha said.
“Honestly, it feels like it comes down to the simple moments in the game where we miss one tackle or don’t do one job, it will cost us like that, because it all comes down to the bonus points, right? We have been missing out on bonus points, but I think we have been performing well enough to get into playoff contention.”
Osborne and Tonga’uiha are far from the only two members of the team to have been there from the very start. Ryan Fitzgerald, General Manager, has been with the team for nearly half a decade, as has Eric Howard and JP Eloff.
Committing to developing his players on a long-term basis, Osborne and his staff have certainly seen the fruits of their labor. This was no more seen than in the summer, when 11 of NOLA’s players were called up by their national teams.
These callups included debuts for Andrew Guerra, Matt Harmon and Lockie Kratz, whilst Tonga’uiha’s bow followed later in the year.
During the offseason 2020 Draft pick, Brian Nault, and 2021 pick, George Sharpe, were called up to the USA Selects that competed in the Americas Pacific Challenge in South America.
“We have got a core group of players here as well,” Osborne said. “I think if you look across the league, a lot of teams have a big turnover (of players), we don’t.
“We tend to grab guys and stick with them. We are really big on American talent, so we have got a lot of young American kids here that we really like, and we want them to be here a long time.
“We want to develop them; we don’t want to put two or three years into them and have them leave us. I think even if you look at the way we do things. For example, Moni, he came down here as a wing/centre and after a game I thought he was a backrower, so we made him into a backrower. He is a capped Eagle now.
“I just think we have a way to say that we have put this time in, and you have put this time in for us, rather than just getting rid of you, we are going to have a search and see if we can find a different spot.”
WELCOMING THE KING
As for every other MLR team this offseason, Osborne has been actively retaining and recruiting players and staff for the season ahead.
Pat O’Toole has signed on for another season, as have Ross Depperschmidt, Juan Cappiello, Lockie Kratz, William Waguespack, Eric Howard, while Taylor Krumrei, Aaron Mathews, Devereaux Ferris and Harley Wheeler have joined from elsewhere.
Perhaps the headline signing made by both Osborne and Fitzgerald, is an addition to the backroom staff.
Bringing in former All Blacks fly-half Carlos Spencer to assist with the backs and attack, the man largely referred to as ‘King’, playing for Auckland, Blues, Northampton Saints, Gloucester, Lions and the Barbarians before calling time on his career in 2010, has certainly added some excitement amongst the Gold coaches ahead of preseason in January.
“Bringing in Carlos Spencer to help us with some stuff and just a different voice,” Osborne said. “For the first two years, it was just me doing it by myself. That is just one voice and then Kane Thompson has been amazing, and he did an amazing job last year.
“I think that after a while you hear the same voices, but once they get the King here, they will hear his voice and probably get drawn to it a little bit. I am excited to work with him.
“He was my favorite rugby player at one time, so I am really excited to sit with him every day and go over stuff. As a coach you have always got to be learning and you can’t be scared to bring guys in.
“You are bringing these guys in and asking all these questions, and I want to learn from him, and I want him to help us get over the hump as well.”
For the players too, Spencer’s arrival has caused something of a stir. That, along with a firm belief that the team is not far from achieving their goal of making it to the postseason, leaves Tonga’uiha having high expectations for the new season.
Photo by Craig Boudreaux
“I used to watch highlights of Carlos Spencer,” he said. “I was in Eagles camp when Fitz, our GM, told me the news and I was excited. I think he is going to be a big addition to our attack, and I just can’t wait to get under him and learn and elevate my game.
“I want us to get to the final. I think I want us to be number one in defense. I think if we get that side of the ball down, we will find ourselves in playoff contention. That’s one thing I have been thinking about the last month.
“On the offensive side of the ball, we have some really good players like JP Eloff, Robbie Coleman, we have got a lot of people who do stuff on offense, but I think if we really lock down the defense, we can find ourselves in the playoffs.”
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