The dog keeps getting bigger.
That’s how Kees Lensing, the new coach of the Seattle Seawolves professional rugby team, sees it.
“The coaches last year said retaining the championship was a ‘dog on their backs,’ ” Lensing said.
The Seawolves won the championship in 2018, the first year of the Major League Rugby, and the dog appeared the next year.
Then the team won another championship in 2019, and now the dog is howling in the coach’s ears, if not tugging on them.
“There are no easy games for us,” Lensing said. “Every team wants to knock off the champions. But I like challenges.”
The season started Sunday with the Seawolves losing to San Diego, the team they beat to win the championship last year, on the road 33-24. The Seawolves’ first home game at Starfire Stadium in Tukwila is Feb. 22 against Toronto.
With three new teams this year (Boston, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.), MLR split into two divisions with six teams in each. The No. 2 and 3 teams in each division will play to see who faces the division leader. That game will determine who gets into the East versus West championship game.
In 2019, Lensing, whose wife is from Bellingham, was the forward coach for the Rugby United New York (RUNY), which, in its first season in the MLR, made it to the semi-finals before losing to San Diego.
Lensing, 41, comes from Namibia, started playing professional rugby in South Africa at 21 and has since played or coached on six continents. He played for the Namibian team in the 2003 and 2008 Rugby World Cups and with the Vodacom Blue Bulls when they won the Currie Cup, South Africa’s premier competition. He also played professionally in the United Kingdom and France before turning to coaching in 2011.
The Seawolves are on their third coach in three years but obviously have something that has sustained success.
“They have strong leaders and are highly driven,” Lensing said. “That makes it easier to coach and succeed.”
The players the team re-signed or signed could also lead to success. Start with Brad Tucker, the league’s player of the year in 2019. He led the league in tackles with 289, and carried the ball 188 times, right behind his teammate Riekert Hattingh who ran for 1,073 meters and seven tries (each worth five points). Add to that Brock Staller, who scored more points – 204 – than anyone else in the league.
The roster is filled with players who have suited up professionally in England, Ireland, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Joey Iosefa played in the National Football League. Sitiveni and Suliasi Tamaivena, twins from Renton, played college football and rugby. Andrew Durutalo played for the United States in the 2015 Rugby World Cup and for USA’s 2016 Olympic team in Rio de Janeiro. Jess Hassler, Jake Ilnicki and Djustice Sears-Duru played for Canada in the Rugby World Cup.
The Seawolves also brought in Ross Neal, a 24-year-old back at 260 pounds and six foot five, from the Wasps in England’s Premiership league.
“I was not happy with the number of games I was playing in England,” Neal said. “and I wanted to try out a new league in a new place.”
Lensing is well aware that other teams know that “whatever they did last year wasn’t enough to beat us. They know they will have to do more.”