PRO Rugby Weekend Review: The First Gauge of Competitive Balance

The second weekend of matches has wrapped up and it seems like we now have an outline of the hierarchy in PRO Rugby. Last week’s match between Sacramento and San Francisco featured a thrilling display of the league’s potential, but the rawness of the two teams became more apparent when they faced off against San Diego and Denver this weekend.

San Diego 37-24 Sacramento

In Southern California, we caught our first glimpse of San Diego’s fearsome back line which impressed even with center Andrew Suniula and wing Takudzwa Ngwenya unavailable and scrum-half Tom Bliss on the sidelines to begin the match. The San Diegoites built their early lead through penalty goals before busting the match open with a try from Mike Te’o after a scintillating run from Ryan Matyas. A few minutes later, Matyas charged down an attempted punt and recovered the ball, leading to a second try scored by captain Phil Mackenzie.

While the San Diegans were able to string together some impressive passages of play through their back line, Sacramento’s back line never picked up steam. They lined up very steeply, and a rampant defense from San Diego assured that each pass would only result in lost meters. Sacramento’s comeback attempt saw two tries scored from the scrum, still a bright spot for the team, with Robert Meeson’s late try coming from close range as well. In between scores for Sacramento, Mike Te’o earned his second try of the day to put the match out of reach.

San Francisco 18-35 Denver

At the other end of the state, San Francisco hosted Denver in their first match at Boxer Stadium. The windy conditions put a damper on the first few minutes as neither team could do much to leave the middle stretch of the field, and the only scoring in the first quarter came from a penalty goal for each side. San Francisco would score the first try of the match off a counter-attack that ended with flanker Sam Finau dotting the ball down past the goal line. They kept the momentum going with a forty-meter dash for a try from Jack O’Hara on a possession that started deep in their own territory.

The Mountainboks responded quickly, with Pedrie Wannenberg scoring on a pick up from the back of the scrum shortly after a slicing run from Ata Malifa put the team near the goal line. Attacking off of the strength of their set-pieces would turn out to be the winning formula for Denver, just as it was for Sacramento last week, as Denver picked up three more tries in the second half after winning scrums near the goal line. San Francisco had the lion’s share of possession in the final quarter of the match but weren’t able to produce until David Tameilau scored a try on the final play of the match. Denver’s manhandling of San Francisco meant that just about everyone in the forward pack stood out, so giving the man of the match award to Ata Malifa was a fair compromise but not truly indicative of how the match went. His runs drove the Denver offense in the first ninety meters of the field but they did most of their scoring through brute strength in the final ten.

After two weeks, it’s clear that Denver and San Diego are fair bit better than the Northern California squads. This week’s winners and Ohio look like well-rounded teams that can reasonably expect to compete for the league title, while Sacramento and San Francisco have glaring holes to address. It’s not quite the same level of disparity between the top and bottom as the “premiership” level of club leagues, but if the two teams don’t adjust they could be in for a long season as other teams have figured them out quite quickly.

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