The title defense begins for the Seattle Seawolves. Again.

The Seawolves closed out the 2019 Major League Rugby season with their second straight championship with a 26-23 win over the San Diego Legion in the second year of MLR.

Last year’s title defense ended a month after it started when the season was postponed — and later canceled — in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Seawolves were 1-4 when the season ended under new coach Kees Lensing. But expectations are high as the team opens play Saturday at the Houston Sabercats, not only because the Seawolves are the only MLR team to win a title, but because many of the top players from the 2019 title team have stayed.

“Obviously, there is a lot of pressure on us,” said Lensing, who coached forwards for Rugby United New York in 2019. “There is always pressure to perform and make the fans happy.”

The Seawolves play their first five games on the road. That schedule was made with the hopes that fans would be able to attend games at Starfire Sports in Tukwila once the home schedule starts May 2 against Rugby United New York.

“We have the best fans in the league, and we want to give ourselves the best home advantage possible,” Seawolves player/assistant coach Mat Turner said.

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Lensing, a former member of the Namibia national rugby team, said many things made the the Seawolves job attractive, apart from getting a chance to be a head coach “and challenge myself a little more.”

Seattle Seawolves coach Kees Lensing talks with the team during practice at Starfire Sports in Tukwila last week. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Seattle Seawolves coach Kees Lensing talks with the team during practice at Starfire Sports in Tukwila last week. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

His wife is from Bellingham, and he loves the people — and the scenery — in Seattle and calls Starfire Stadium the best in the league.

“But the main reason is it’s always good to come to a winning team,” Lensing said.

Turner, a fullback who has been with the Seawolves from the start, has added the role of assistant coach this season. He originally signed with the Seawolves in 2017 as a player and director of operations, helping promote the team before its first season in 2018.

Turner is not new to coaching, having coached the Sri Lanka national rugby sevens team.

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“If he’s on the field, it will be a massive plus for us, because he has that personal experience with the players,” Lensing said.

Turner, a native of South Africa, said he has always wanted to do more than just play the game, which is why he took on the role of director of operations.

He sees coaching as a way to give back to the game, saying “the funnest part is seeing guys grow.”

“But I’ve got to keep my standards as a player,” he said.

Lensing and Turner want the team to play a fluid, attacking, fast-paced style that will get fans out of their seats.

Fly-half Ben Cima, a veteran of the U.S. national team who joined the Seawolves in 2019, likes what he sees.

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“I think we can be as good as in years past,” said Cima, who went seven months without playing rugby during the pandemic. “That culture and the aura of the team is still there.”

Seawolves fly half Ben Cima practices with his teammates at Starfire Sports in Tukwila last week. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)
Seawolves fly half Ben Cima practices with his teammates at Starfire Sports in Tukwila last week. (Ellen M. Banner / The Seattle Times)

Said Turner: “We’ve really concentrated on keeping our core players and reinforced where we can. It’s completely in our hands. … I feel that we have all the tools we require.”

For players and coaches, just getting a chance to compete after such a long absence is reason to celebrate.

“Even just when we started, you could see the natural energy in the guys just to be back,” Lensing said. “I think we all appreciate it a lot more when you don’t have something.”

Said Cima: “The vibe around preseason is that we’re all lucky to be here playing again. Everyone is grateful and has a smile on their face.”

Note

The Seawolves’ opener against Houston on Saturday is the first CBS Game of the Week this season and will be televised on the CBS Sports Network.

ROOT Sports will continue to be the Seawolves’ regional broadcast partner. The network will televise their match at the LA Giltinis, an expansion franchise, on March 28 at 5:30 p.m.