The top two men's DI clubs in Southern California meet up this weekend as undefeated Belmont Shore visits 5-1 Santa Monica.
Belmont Shore Head Coach has seen good things of late from two 2012 breakout talents, moving young Mike Te'o to fullback, and shifting powerful forward presence Eric Duechle to No. 8. With so much veteran leadership from the likes of Eddie McKenna, Peter Sio, and Sinapati Uiagalelei, Shore is mixing well under Head Coach Ray Egan.
But Santa Monica is going just fine. At 5-1 they have accumulated more bonus points than Shore, and so are only two points behind in the standings. Santa Monica can take 1st with a win, but even a loss won’t keep them out of the running for top spot.
Michael Hobbs is kicking well and captain and fullback Ali Ross leads a hungry pod of Dolphins. Last week they rolled up Las Vegas with Ken Aseme and Shane Morales both scoring two tries,
“This is a huge weekend,” said Santa Monica Head Coach Doug Bratcher. The winner has got the inside track on winning the league. It should be an outstanding, end-to-end game. We are looking at continuing our form from the last few weeks. We're healthy and looking forward to getting out in front of a big home audience and taking on the defending national champions.”
Bratcher points out that Santa Monica held Belmont Shore to zero tries in the opening clash between the two - won by Shore 12-8 - something few teams are able to do. At the same time, Belmont Shore’s offense, especially their ball retention, is clicking a little bit better now.
“Obviously that's a huge ask to do again, but we've got to be on top of our game to have a chance,” said Bratcher. “Ultimately though I think that the outcome of the game will hinge on our defense and our ability to limit their scoring chances. Belmont are the top dogs until someone knocks them off.”
Oddly, this may not be the most crucial game in the SoCal league. While 1-4 Back Bay takes on 0-5 Las Vegas may not be the matchup dreams are made of, Los Angeles at OMBAC has its own magic. LA is 3-3 and has been playing well of late. They were off last week, but had come into the bye week 2-1, with the only loss being a tight 18-14 contest with Belmont Shore.
LA is 3-3 and a victory against OMBAC could vault them into the upper echelon.
OMBAC is still trying to dig themselves out of an early-season hole. They shook off a bad loss to Santa Monica Feb. 16 and beat Back Bay to improve to 2-3. If they beat Los Angeles, suddenly OMBAC is in good shape to finish 3rd, and possibly challenge for 2nd. Lose and they are looking down the business end of 5th place.
In Northern California, once again it’s complicated. Olympic Club has to start winning in order to overcome their forfeits and two-win penalty. This week they play the Bay Barbarians, currently winless, and need to keep them winless.
The Sacramento Lions were humbled somewhat by SFGG last week. They can rebound with a victory over the East Palo Alto Razorbacks. The Razorbacks have one win on their record, a game that was abandoned late by the referee, so is still in doubt. What’s less in doubt is that they pushed the EPA Bulldogs very close 15-14 last week. If that is the sign of real improvement, rather than just one of those weird rivalry things where two teams that desperately want to beat each other close down the scoring opportunities, we will see this weekend.
If the Razorbacks have turned a corner, the Lions could be in trouble.
SFGG, currently 5-0 and enjoying an average scoreline of 57-11, take on new #2 team the EPA Bulldogs.
Head Coach Grant Wells is aware that his team could fall into complacency, but he hasn’t seen it yet and with veterans such as Mose Timoteo, Danny LaPrevotte and Chris Biller leading the way, he doesn’t expect to.
“We just want to see continuation in our accuracy and tempo without the unforced errors,” said Wells. “The local NorCal teams are not bad and bring us different challenges each week . We know we have hard games right around the corner and just want to keep up to the level we know we can play.”
Look for Volney Rouse to play his first 80 minutes of the season, and flanker (and club executive) Bruce Thomas to finally get on the pitch after coming back from injury.
Biller and LaPrevotte continue to play well, and everyone is hoping Mile Pulu continues to improve. Pulu has made some big plays, but his road to high-level fitness has been a rough one.
In Texas, the Dallas Harlequins emerged victorious last week over an improving Dallas Reds team. The ‘Quins have prop Sam Rooke to thank, in part, as his two tries in the final 11 minutes turned a tight contest into a smooth coast to victory for his club. Charles Davidson continues to rack up the points for the ‘Quins.
Rooke, by the way, now is tied for the league lead in tries, a rarity for a prop. He joked that he is framing the stats page from the league, as he expects the situation to change very quickly.
All of those results mean the Harlequins are in 2nd place again, just behind the Austin Blacks. The Blacks got 13 points from Diego Sotelo and two tries each from wing Ellis Glaw and fullback Tomasi Ramanumanu in their defeat of the Austin Huns. The result was that the Blacks are still in 1st and look set to stay there. The Huns, who could have grabbed hold of 3rd with an iron fist, lost their grip.
With the Dallas Reds disappointing themselves against the ‘Quins, the team to take advantage was Houston Area Rugby Club, which won a barnburner 40-38 over The Woodlands and took that bonus-point victory and used it to jump over two teams into third place.
This all sets up this coming weekend. Is HARC for real? If so, they get to prove it on the road against the Austin Blacks. A loss won’t be the end of the world for them, but a close loss, or a bonus point for four tries, could do them a world of good.
The Woodlands and Fort Worth, both struggling at the moment, face off to see who gets to be in last place. And then, while the Reds rest up and lick their wounds, the Huns host the Harlequins to see who can make the Reds feel even worse.
A win by the Harlequins coupled by a Blacks victory, and they are as good as confirmed in 2nd place. If the Huns beat the ‘Quins, then it’s all still a jumble, with the two teams from Dallas, HARC, and the Huns battling for three playoff spots.
And finally, the unfortunately dysfunctional South league returns to action. The league isn’t dysfunctional because of the quality of teams in it, it has problems because of the low number of teams therein.
Life University hosts New Orleans this weekend. Life has been thoroughly uncooperative with their league-mates, beating both soundly and it’s likely the same will happen this weekend.
But New Orleans has to think long-term here. They just came away from winning the Fort Lauderdale Ruggerfest, during which they beat Old Blue, and have to be thinking they can use this game to toughen themselves for playoff time.
"We hadn't played too much before Fort Lauderdale," said New Orleans captain Jeff Reuther. "We are trying to get steadily better and I think we did some good things. We played with more continuity and were playing well as a team and as individuals. But we are looking to play steadily better competition, and we expect Life to be tough."
Life beat New Orleans 70-18 in the Big Easy last fall, but Reuther said the team learned a lot from that game.
"This is our first big test of the spring, but we know what to expect now and we have made some adjustments."