The words “history” and “historic” were thrown around an awful lot this weekend by PRO Rugby, its teams, and its supporters. It was obviously an important weekend for the league and for American rugby, obvious enough that the historic nature of the weekend’s matches didn’t need to be hammered home to the point where the word nearly loses its meaning. And yet, it was, and its a great sign that this is one of my few complaints for the weekend. (The other, and bigger, complaint is not having a way to watch the Denver-Ohio match.) Speaking of semantic satiation, with this first weekend review I’m going to focus on the weekend of famous “first” moments that made it a historic one for the league.
First match: Denver vs Ohio. This match kicked off despite the wintry conditions that cancelled two Pacific Rugby Premiership matches at Infinity Park the day before. If it kept some supporters from showing up, that’s a good sign for Denver as 2,312 people came out for yesterday’s match anyways. We could see sell-out crowds in Rugbytown USA as we get closer to summer.
First extra time match: Denver vs Ohio. I’ve mentioned before that it is unlikely that we will see PRO Rugby’s law variation on extra time come into play all that often this season. So I was delighted to see that it came up in the very first match of the season. This led to…
First highlight: Will Magie’s game-winning penalty. Without a live stream of the first match, it seemed like this moment would come from the match in Sacramento. But Denver pushed the game into extra time and Magie’s game-winner was predictable enough for PRO Rugby’s Twitter account to capture and share just after the final whistle.
First try, score: Roland Suniula try vs Ohio. Backing up to earlier in the match, Ohio led throughout and that lead was first built with a try from the center Suniula, who reportedly put in one of the better performances of the day. Suniula has spent the past four seasons playing in the second and third divisions of French rugby, something that you will likely see American players opting for less often now that PRO Rugby is an option.
First conversion, points from a kick; first penalty goal: Shaun Davies vs Ohio. Davies would pick up the next few points at his old home ground through a conversion and a penalty goal to give Ohio a ten point advantage.
First yellow card: Shaun Davies. He also shows up on the wrong side of history-making here with his infringement late in the second half. Denver took advantage with Ohio down a man, scoring their first tries to force the match into extra time.
First match in California, match broadcast: Sacramento vs San Francisco. The cradle of American rugby saw its first professional match in Sacramento, a city that has had more of an impact on the game than it is typically celebrated for. One of Sacramento’s rugby heroes, Lou Stanfill, did a wonderful job in the commentary booth for the league’s first broadcast.
First drop goal: Harry Bennett vs San Francisco. Most of the major firsts were accomplished in Denver but the crowd in Sacramento got to witness one of their own as Harry Bennett nailed a gorgeous forty meter drop goal late in the second half to extend the lead to five. He had one other sterling moment earlier in the match, when a deep kick off his boot was picked up by teammate Garrett Brewer for what was the finest try of the match.
First nickname: The Mentos. On Twitter, I jokingly referred to Sacramento as “the Mentos”. On Reddit, many others had the same idea. Some users also called them the Freshmakers. Obviously, there is some sponsorship potential here.
The league has taken the huge step of kicking off and with most of the firsts out of the way (we still have the first home matches for San Francisco and Ohio as well as San Diego’s first match to look forward to), the focus with PRO Rugby shifts from its mere existence towards the play on the field, the operations off it, and the ways that both can improve. From what I saw during the match in Sacramento, the quality of play is highly entertaining but far from flawless. Most importantly, it’s a step up from the level of America’s previous top competitions and should only improve from here. The off-field aspects, from attendance figures to the game broadcast, similarly managed to meet expectations while leaving room to grow. Still, history happened. Until yesterday, PRO Rugby was America’s best chance at a professional rugby competition. Today, it is America’s professional rugby competition.