It was a week where there wasn’t a whole lot left on the line, as the league’s title fight is already set for next weekend, but PRO Rugby’s teams didn’t need any extra incentive in order to put on the most exciting weekend of matches to date. The results of both matches this week were up in the air with less than ten minutes remaining, a nice change of pace in a league where matches have been decided by halftime with increasing regularity.
Sacramento 35-27 San Diego
Both teams are out of title contention but that didn’t stop the Sacramento Express and San Diego Breakers from putting on what PRO Rugby’s director of rugby operation Stephen Lewis called the best match of the league’s season. The Express defeated the Breakers 35-27 in a roller coaster of a match where both teams had displays of what makes them dangerous.
The match got off to a slow start as they tend to do in Sacramento, where the teams have to contend with both the opposing players and the oppressive heat. The teams exchanged penalties in the opening minutes, with San Diego’s coming first from Kurt Morath and Sacramento’s from Mirco Bergamasco. The teams grappled for control of the match and Sacramento struck the first real blow with a try from Valdemar Lee-Lo after a relentless slow ball attack finally wore the Breakers down.
With a bit of wind in their sails, the Express rolled through the Breakers defense a few minutes later with an explosive break from John Quill. His pass at the 22 meter line was batted down by Takudzwa Ngwenya but quickly picked up by Nemia Qoro, who after his own run offloaded to Quill for the try. Bergamasco’s conversion made the score 15-3, and the match would go into halftime with that score.
The second half was a different story for the Breakers and a big part of that was thanks to the additional involvement from Mike Te’o moving up to scrum-half. The Express extended their halftime lead to 15 with a penalty, but a pair of tries from Te’o in the 49th and 56th minutes sandwiched Bergamasco’s third penalty of the match and gave the Breakers a much needed spark.
San Diego kept up the pressure in their attacking play, and a try from Ngwenya on the far side of the field brought the Breakers within a point of the Express before Morath’s conversion gave them the lead. Ryan Matyas got in on the scoring action as well and his converted try gave the Breakers a six point lead.
But the Express were not done quite yet. After allowing the Breakers to string together a 24-3 run, Sacramento answered in a big way with a try coming from Garrett Brewer. Brewer’s footwork at the tail end of the run to move back inside allowed for an easier conversion, which gave the lead back to Sacramento.
The two teams battled valiantly from there but Sacramento always seemed to have the edge. The Express were awarded a penalty very close to the posts in the 77th minute but opted to kick for touch and push for a try. After a few attempts to muscle over, the gamble paid off when Kyle Sumsion crossed the line and Bergamasco hit a conversion that gave the Express an eight point lead with a minute and a half remaining.
The match was paused at this point for Pat Blair’s injury, an unfortunate end for an otherwise successful debut for the Eagles 7s member. When the match resumed, the Express kept the Breakers from scoring and held on for a thrilling 35-27 victory.
San Francisco 24-31 Denver
Sunday afternoon’s match at Boxer Stadium had a tough act to follow, but the San Francisco Rush and Denver Aviators put on their own spirited – and at times, chippy – contest. And while the match did seem like a potential trap game for Denver ahead of the de facto final in Obetz next week, the Stampede held off the Rush after a punishing second half performance.
The Rush got off to a very quick start and Pila Iongi scored in the second minute of the match after a series of quick and clever passes to work around the far side of the Denver line. The Stampede answered back in the tenth minute with a Timana Tahu try on a dive in the corner, but the Rush kept a narrow two point lead after a missed conversion attempt.
Pila Iongi scored his second try minutes later after a great run and assist from Jake Anderson to push the Rush’s lead back to seven. The Stampede showed off their power when they answered back with a Pedrie Wannenburg try pushed in through a maul, tying the match up at 12 a piece.
The Rush had the final word of the half on Bill Fukofuka’s try, which finished off another thrilling series of play where the real highlight was Devereaux Ferris’s behind-the-back pass to Orene Ai’i. The match went into halftime with a score of 17-12 in favor of San Francisco, although the Rush may have been unlucky to not get another try late in the half on Iongi’s spectacular chase effort after the initial chip from Ai’i and then a touch line-saving boot from Iongi himself. Iongi raced Mike Garrity to the ball just past the goal line and it was ruled that Garrity reached the ball first.
The second half also began with a quick strike from the Rush. Michael Haley turned the ball over and passed to Volney Rouse, who sprinted down the touch line after dummying his way out of trouble. The score gave San Francisco a twelve point lead but unlike in the first half, this try was not a sign of things to come for the Rush.
Denver took control of the match after this, keeping the ball in hand a little more and controlling the pace as they’ve been able to all season long. Martin Knoetze scored in the corner to give the Stampede their first score of the second half. Later on, Chris Baumann nearly scored his own try on a scamper down the sideline but had to settle for an assist to Mose Timoteo when he was tracked down. Will Magie hit the conversion to knot up the score at 24 per side.
The game-winning score for the Stampede came in the 73rd minute when Tahu broke through the Rush’s line and sent a long pass out to Chad London, who circled around to the posts for the easy conversion. The Stampede scored nineteen unanswered second half points in their comeback effort but perhaps the greater credit should be given to their defensive play in shutting down the Rush attack after an explosive first half.