PRO Rugby Weekend Review: Week 7

This week was a telling one for the California PRO Rugby teams as the league enters the international “break”. Sacramento, San Diego, and San Francisco all continued in the direction that their momentum was carrying them, for better or worse. San Francisco secured a breakthrough victory, Sacramento’s slip has finally shown in the standings, and San Diego proved that they are still the top challenger to the front-runner Denver.

San Diego 44-23 Sacramento

The scoring in the match began with a penalty from each side – one from Sacramento’s Mirco Bergamasco in the 7th minute and one from San Diego’s Kalei Konrad a few minutes later. In a scary moment between the two plays, San Diego scrumhalf Tom Bliss went down with a head injury and would be replaced by Charlie Purdon. A few minutes after Konrad’s penalty, Mike Te’o broke through Sacramento’s line and kicked the ball ahead after finding himself cornered, which Tim Stanfill chased down to give San Diego the first try of the match. Bergamasco’s boot helped narrow the lead to 10-6 after another penalty, but San Diego responded immediately after the kickoff was tipped by Takudzwa Ngwenya to Phil Mackenzie who was able to run the ball to within ten meters of the try line. After a few more phases, Charlie Purdon got his name on the score sheet with a try. Sacramento’s first try came in the 33rd minute, as the team took a quick line-out to catch San Diego off-guard. A few passes later, John Quill found himself with the ball and nothing but the green grass of Torero Stadium in front of him. The conversion brought the score to 17-13, followed by a Bergamasco penalty that closed the gap to one point.

Sacramento would have had the momentum going into halftime, but a controversial red card for John Quill changed that. The offense occurred after the final scrum of the half, when Langilangi Haupeakui of Sacramento appeared to pick the ball up out of the scrum. Charlie Purdon went to tackle Haupeakui, an attempt that was a tad high, and John Quill took matters into his own hands by grabbing Purdon by his shirt and tossing him to the ground. This is certainly a cardable offense but it isn’t clear why that action alone would result in a red rather than a yellow. The video doesn’t show anything that may have happened after Purdon was thrown and the officials were not mic’d up, so any further speculation based on the broadcast alone would be fruitless. After losing their captain, Sacramento went into the halftime break down a point and down a man.

The second half got off to a slow start and it wasn’t until the 56th minute when Kurt Morath made a penalty after being handed San Diego’s kicking duties. The first try of the half was scored by Takudzwa Ngwenya, who weaved through a number of defenders in a fifty yard jaunt to the try line. San Diego started to pile on when Andrew Suniula picked-and-went twenty two meters for a try that put them up by 18, but Sacramento stopped the bleeding for a little bit with a well-worked try finished off by Olive Kilifi. But San Diego would close the match with another small flurry of scoring through a Kurt Morath penalty and Tim Stanfill’s second try. All things considered, Sacramento held tough in the second half but there wasn’t much they could do when the brilliance of San Diego’s back line started to shine through.

Sacramento won’t have another match for nearly a month. This could be a blessing for a team that still needs to gel a bit more, but they also may find themselves running into teams with a bit more momentum from a consistent schedule. The team slipped to last place this weekend and won’t have the opportunity to climb out of the hole, but they can’t be too concerned with the standings when there are more fundamental things to work on.

San Diego, on the other hand, will be very busy during this international break and it starts with a big match against Denver next week where first place will be on the line. Their schedule is a bit unfortunate, as they play a more significant portion of their schedule short-handed than anyone else, but they will find themselves in a good position in their chase for a spot in the final if they can make it through this stretch with minimal damage

San Francisco 35-20 Ohio

The wind played a big factor in this match and it was evident in the way the two teams played. San Francisco, going into the wind, opted to keep the ball in hand while Ohio could kick for territory. Ohio would use this advantage to pick up the first score of the match, when Sebastián Kalm added to his league-leading try total after a fierce, four-minute stand-off with San Francisco at the goal line. Shaun Davies’ conversion attempt hit the cross-bar, and Ohio had a 5-0 lead that would turn out to be short-lived. Minutes later, San Francisco struck back with a try from Mils Muliaina on his long-awaited PRO Rugby debut in this match. Muliaina, who surprisingly lined up at center after a lengthy career as a fullback, was on the receiving end of a well-timed offload from fly-half Volney Rouse, who would also add the conversion that put them ahead by two. After this score, Ohio again continued to pin San Francisco back as the Bay Area squad tried moving the ball up the field manually. It would be another thirteen minutes before Ohio scored next on a penalty from Shaun Davies to go up 8-7. San Francisco responded by marching down the field for a try that was capped off when Bill Fukofuka stretched across the goal line. Shaun Davies was shown a yellow card a few minutes before halftime and San Francisco immediately responded with a try from Jacob Finau. Finau had just come on for Patrick Latu, who was having a fine match himself until his injury. The try put the halftime score at 21-8 in favor of the home side.

With a thirteen point lead and now with the wind on their side, San Francisco was able to kick strategically and settle for penalties. Rouse notched his first penalty a few minutes into the half to put San Francisco up by sixteen. Ohio responded quickly when Roland Suniula grabbed an errant tip from the kickoff and passed to Matt Hughston, who made a great run towards the goal line. The sequence was eventually finished off by Filippo Ferrarini and the conversion from Robbie Shaw narrowed the gap to nine points. Ohio was not able to sustain much of an attack after this point, making a number of handling errors and finding their home run option in wing Spike Davis contained by San Francisco’s defense. Rouse added penalty goals in the 51st and 60th minutes of the match, and Pila Iongi scored San Francisco’s bonus point try to effectively seal the match. Ohio would force in a try through a rolling maul to make the score 35-20, which would be the final after Ohio failed to come closer.

The victory was the first for San Francisco, which followed two close efforts against San Diego and Denver. The additions of Mils Muliaina, Pila Iongi, and Bill Fukofuka have helped make this a more complete squad and one that won’t be counted as an automatic victory by anyone in this league. At 1-5, making the final is still highly unlikely and would likely require winning out and getting some help along the way. This may prove to be a bridge too far for this season but they are clearly not packing it in.

On the other hand, Ohio is a bit of an enigma. They cruised to two easy wins at home, but their road games have been more of a struggle. There’s a feeling that they can beat anyone in this league, the talent is certainly there, but they’ve also lost to everyone except Sacramento. Unlike San Francisco, their fate is still in their own hands and they will prove difficult to stop if they can find their groove on attack. But there is as much potential to slip down the ladder as there is to climb, so Ohio needs to find their footing again quickly.

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