The first five weeks of PRO Rugby are in the books and each team has faced one another thanks to some tidy scheduling. The schedule doesn’t stay so even for the remainder of the season as the league tiptoes around the June international window, but one time through is enough to give us a basic idea of where each team stands.
At the top of the league is Denver, who remained undefeated after a 35-13 victory in Sacramento. The defensive efforts of Denver have played a big role in keeping their record unblemished, allowing a league-low 15 points per game. The squad’s scoring average of 27 points per game is third-best in the league and they typically have had less possession than their opponents, but they’ve been able to convert their best chances into points while allowing their opponents very few meaningful opportunities to hit back.
The key for Denver heading into the remaining eight matches is to continue controlling the pace of the match and executing as they have in the first month of the season. The team was given a boost yesterday when Hanco Germishuys made his PRO Rugby debut, scoring two tries in his first match back stateside after a star turn at the World Rugby U20 Trophy in Zimbabwe.
#2 San Diego
The SoCal team’s highly touted attack has the squad in second place after their first set of matches. San Diego leads the league in points per game at 30.75, but it’s a small gap between them, Ohio, and Denver. Their matches against their fellow Californian sides have showcased their ability to score as much as anyone in the league and yesterday’s win over Ohio saw the team overcome a defense that had frustrated them for most of the match with a well-executed final drive for the winning try. Even when they fell short against Denver, San Diego was able to kick it into high gear at the end when it mattered most.
San Diego may be playing to the level of their competition more than anyone else in the league. The San Diegan defense has been solidly in the middle of the pack but they have given up more points in their matches against Sacramento and San Francisco than they have against their fellow league leaders. This may simply be a side effect of the kind of expansive play that San Diego would like for their back line and the margins of victory against the bottom teams have been comfortable enough.
Ohio sits second in points for, second in points against, third in the standings, and a tad unlucky not to be in first. Handling errors plagued their extra-time loss against Denver to open the season. It is commonly cited that four potential tries for Ohio were erased by knock-ons but only one seemed to be clearly devoid of defensive pressure to cause the mistake. Still, one extra score would have been enough on that day. In yesterday’s match against San Diego, Ohio was able to overcome their own injury concerns to hold the lead after eighty minutes – but not after the final whistle. One of those injuries was to flyhalf JP Eloff, the team’s primary goal kicker, and his absence was felt when the team missed two easy penalties that made up more than the final margin.
In between those two defeats, Ohio put on a clinical performance against San Francisco and shut down Sacramento in the second half of their match to come away with another big victory. Ohio has looked nearly as good as the two teams ahead of them and there is enough time to overcome either or both teams in the standings. Their biggest issue could be depth, which is not an indictment of the pure amount of talent as much as it is mismatched pieces. The team has plenty of back row players but the other areas run a little thin. Their kicking game hasn’t been great either, with a back three that isn’t all that prepared to play for territory (thankfully for them and the viewing audience, it seems like no one wants to engage them in a bout of aerial ping pong despite this advantage) and no one who can kick goals nearly as well as Eloff.
There’s a considerably drop off between the league’s top three and the two sides from Northern California. After a comeback victory against San Francisco, Sacramento has dropped three straight matches where the team was thoroughly dominated for at least one half. San Diego controlled the first half of their match-up to take a 24-3 lead into halftime and Sacramento’s second half push would only make the final margin a little more respectable. The team seemingly matched Ohio blow for blow through the first half and entered the break trailing by a single point but then failed to score in the second half while letting the visitors score three tries to expand the final margin to twenty. Sacramento also failed to score in the second half of yesterday’s match against Denver to let the league leaders pull away after some initial fight.
Sacramento’s attack has sputtered and their 21.25 points per game is a league low, and drops to 16 per game against the teams ahead of them in the standings. I jokingly said a few weeks ago that “penalty try” could be the team’s leader in tries this season – the abstract concept is currently tied with Olive Kilifi for first place in that category with two tries a piece. The defense hasn’t been up to snuff either and the team has been exposed on both sides of the ball when they try to play more expansively. The forwards, especially in the scrum, have been the strength of this team but they will need a more well-rounded squad in order to reach the level of the teams ahead of them.
#5 San Francisco
Like Sacramento, San Francisco hasn’t had much positive to say about their season after the first match. The scrum has been pushed around and key players in that department keep finding themselves injured. The defense overall has been especially porous in allowing 42.25 points per game. A potentially dangerous attack has found it difficult to find its footing in large part because of inefficient support play. All together, you get an 0-4 team that feels like they could be a lot better with more structure and discipline.
The team has added Pila Iongi from Nottingham and Mils Muliaina will join shortly, which should help sort out the back line. The forward pack may not be as bad as they initially appear when everyone is fit, and SFGG captain Brendan Daly could help them become a respectable unit if he joins the team as is rumored. Still, the potential changes in personnel will need to be accompanied by smarter play and a bit better fitness, which will be a bridge too far for this team to realistically compete for a title this season. This team could improve quite a bit this season and still find themselves in last place.