The first season of PRO Rugby is firmly in its final stretch now. Week 16’s championship clash between the Ohio Aviators and Denver Stampede is on the horizon but before that we have two weeks of what ultimately amounts to exhibition play. Ohio’s two consecutive bye weeks means that Denver is the only team in play that still has a shot at the title and the only thing on the line for them is the number of standings points they will have heading into week 16. While Denver works on climbing the table, the California teams will be looking to end their frustrating seasons on a high note. This weekend saw Denver continue to work their way into championship form while San Francisco topped San Diego in the first match of the end-of-season California round robin.
San Francisco 50-26 San Diego
Before their week 8 match against Denver, the San Diego Breakers looked like title contenders. The Breakers were in second place with a 4-1 record. They had a shot at usurping the Stampede’s top spot with a victory that week, but Denver won a thriller to remain undefeated at that point. That match began a long losing streak that reached it’s sixth match in a row on Saturday with a heavy 50-26 defeat at the hands of the San Francisco Rush.
The most notable area of decline for the Breakers has been their defense, especially this past month. The Breakers have given up 51 points per game since the beginning of July in a three game stretch that has been the worst in the league this season. The defense was fairly average beforehand, allowing a little over 28 points per game until the end of June, but it was enough that it gave them opportunities to win when their attacking play was at full force. This is likely the result of a number of issues for the Breakers, but what has stood out in the past few games is San Diego’s lackluster play in set pieces and inability to deal with line breaks.
Of course, credit is due to San Francisco for their performance on Saturday as the Rush played with the type of voracity that has been necessary for them to win this season. Early in the match they were able to turn San Diego mistakes into quick points, and the Rush nicked away at the Breakers defense with well-timed runs and offloads throughout the match. Devereaux Ferris had a terrific match, scoring a pair of tries and guiding a relentless Rush attack. San Francisco has a tall task ahead of them next week when they host the Denver Stampede, but this performance should give them a boost of confidence going into the match.
Denver 59-13 Sacramento
The Denver Stampede continued their ascent to the top of the table with a comprehensive 59-13 victory over the Sacramento Express this weekend. A week after scoring 59 against the Breakers in what had been an unprecedented attacking performance from Denver, the Stampede put up the same number against the Express to prove that they have an offense that can stand toe to toe with the Ohio Aviators when they meet in week 16.
Perhaps more impressive than the scoring output itself was Denver’s ability to spread the scoring opportunities around. Eight separate players touched down for the Stampede, with Timana Tahu as the only repeat try scorer. Ata Malifa, Chad London, and Hanco Germishuys were other players who stood out for their heavy activity in setting up the scores, but it was a complete team performance overall. That goes for the defense as well, which held Sacramento without a try until Alex Hodgkinson scored one in garbage time.
Denver’s philosophy seems to have shifted since their loss against Ohio. Up until that game, the Stampede won matches by willingly trading possession for territory. But that strategy doesn’t work all that well against an Aviators team that can score from all over the field and it showed the last time they faced off. The Stampede followed up with a 29-13 win where they suddenly seemed more focused on keeping possession and getting more comfortable with ball in hand. They seem to have found just the right balance in the past few matches, winning the possession and territory battles and lighting up the scoreboard in the process. Meanwhile, the defense has been just as stout as ever and the resulting performances may just make the Stampede the favorites for the title once again.
For Sacramento, it was a very forgettable match. The Express impressed over the past few weeks with their win against the Rush and a valiant comeback effort against the Aviators, but they fell flat against Denver. Tackling was an issue all match long and the team’s impact players were mostly invisible. All in all, it was a step backward for a Sacramento team that has otherwise performed pretty well since the end of their June break. The Express host the Breakers next week in a match between two sides who will try to shrug off heavy defeats from this week. The Express will be looking not only to get back on track but also to avoid clinching a last place finish.