TREASURE ISLAND, Calif. -- The Sacramento Lions Rugby Club notched another road win to come from behind with a thrilling last minute victory, 30-25, over Olympic Club during a very windy afternoon on Treasure Island, CA.
The game came down to the last minute, when the Lions and O Club were tied at 25-25, and the Lions ended a series of determined drives to score in the 80th minute and win the game.
“This game was too close for comfort,” acknowledged Lions Manager Aaron Frederick. “The past few years it has always been a battle with Olympic Club. They beat us in the sweet 16 in 2011, and last year we barely beat them by one point. Despite the results they’ve had this year, we knew it was going to be a battle no matter what. They didn’t let us down.”
Olympic Club has a tradition of being one of the best rugby teams in the country, but 2013 has been somewhat of a rebuilding year for them. Nevertheless, the Lions knew that they were not going to walk into Olympic Club’s home turf without a challenge, and the Lions had their hands full most of the match.
Olympic Club matched the Lions physicality at the breakdown, and caused the Lions to give away countless penalties. O Club’s All-American flyhalf, Keegan Engelbrecht, punished every Lions penalty with his boot, despite the fierce wind, by either nailing penalty kicks or giving Olympic Club excellent field possession with his kicks into touch. The Lions scored six tries to Olympic Club's three, but Engelbrecht’s boot kept his team in the game.
Olympic opened up the scoring with two penalty kicks in the 3rd minute and 7th minutes, taking a quick 6-0 lead. The Lions knew that continued penalties in their own half would translate into points for O-Club, and tried to minimize their infractions. Despite the Lions’ effort to remain disciplined, they frequently found themselves on the wrong end of the referee’s whistle, and Olympic Club capitalized on this throughout the match.
The Lions answered with a try from flanker Eddie Matakibau in the 10th minute, but the conversion attempt missed Olympic Club led 6-5. Olympic Club quickly responded when Engelbrecht kicked for touch on a penalty, setting up a lineout-and-maul for a try and, with Engelbrecht's conversion, a 13-5 lead.
The Lions worked some phases and spun the ball wide. Some nice hands and running from the Lions’ pack created an overlap which ended with No. 8 Nemani Volavola touching down in the corner in the 25th minute. The try was again not converted, leaving the score 13-10.
The Lions tried to up the tempo and played some intense defense with bone-jarring tackles from the center combination of Dennis Saafi and Viliami Finau. Olympic Club weathered the storm, however, and scored another try in the 35th minute. Kicking from a tough angle, Engelbrecht’s kick bounced off the upright. The halftime whistle blew shortly after and Olympic would go into the break with an 18-10 lead.
Lions Head Coach Iferemie Tawake tried to motivate his team at the half. “I told the team that we were not playing at the standard we were capable of playing,” related Tawake. “We did not come this far to just give up and roll over when we were losing and things weren’t going our way. I wanted them to dig deep because it is games like this, where you need to come from behind, that really builds character.”
The Lions entered the second half with a sense of determination. They came out of the gate strong and Lions fullback Garrett Hawley broke a tackle and raced 40 meters before offloading to flyhalf Peceli Rinakama, who finished the job with a try in the 47th minute. No conversion again, and the score was 18-15 Olympic Club leading.
The Lions would continue to shoot themselves in the foot with penalties and turnovers. Olympic capitalized and score another try in the 55th minute. The kick was converted and Olympic increased their lead 25-15.
The two teams continued to battle. Things were looking grim for the Lions as Olympic did a good job of keeping them on their back foot. Both teams suffered injuries from the high level of physicality. The Lions continued to press forward despite the frequent infringements that continued to stymie their offensive drives.
Rinakama once again turned something out of nothing with a brilliant counterattack play. The ball exchanged hands through multiple Lions players and ended up back with Rinakama, who sprinted 50 meters and dotted down in the corner and brought the score within a try at 25-20.
Lions brought on power sub Tevita Pale who proved to be the electric burst the Lions needed. Pale broke through the defense and dodged several defenders to run the ball half the distance of the field and dot down in the corner in the 73rd minute. No conversion again, and the score sat deadlocked 25-25.
(The Lions thought the game was tied but the referee contended that he had the score recorded at 28-25 in favor of Olympic Club. This created some confusion and also frustration for the Lions. Words were exchanged but the referee held firm and told the Lions time was still running.)
The Lions had five minutes now to score a try if they wanted to win without argument. The Lions pressed forward and had several big runs stopped by a determined Olympic Club defensive effort. Time was running out and Olympic Club did everything they could to run the clock down when they had possession. An Olympic knock-on resulted in a Lions scrum on Olympics 22-meter-line. The Lions threw everything they had at Olympic, and after what seemed an age, Lions wing Andre Whaley grabbed the ball from the ruck and reached over the pile to slam down the winning try in the 80th minute and win the game 30-25.
Coach Tawake told his team after the match, “This game is one you should remember. You fought very hard when everything was against you. To come from behind, to overcome all of the errors we made, and continue to not give up until the last minute, this is what really builds character and makes great teams. This is the standard we need to be at and we are going in the right direction.”
The Lions definitely felt fortunate for their victory and threw everything they had at Olympic Club in the final minutes to ensure a win. Video evidence showed that the referee had an incorrect score in the final minutes, and Pale’s try in the 73rd minute indeed tied the match at 25-25.
Although the Lions 80th-minute try unquestionably solidified the victory, had it been a penalty kick, the confusion on the score would have continued. This situation emphasizes the importance of game-film in competitive rugby matches.
The Lions coach and team named flyhalf Peceli Rinakama the man of the match. Rinakama’s electric counter-attacks proved the be the Lions weapon that matched his counter-part Engelbrecht’s flawless kicking ability.
“Peceli has unquestionably helped to raise the standard of play on our team,” commented Lions Manager Aaron Frederick. “He has tons of experience and the capability of playing at the top levels of rugby in the United States. He really stepped it up today and we are proud of him.”
The Lions now have a long break before closing out the season with their two final matches against Bay Area Barbarians on April 13th in Sacramento, CA and San Francisco Golden Gate at Treasure Island, CA on April 20th. With the playoff seeding still up in the air, it looks pretty clear that the Lions have solidified their 9th straight post-season appearance in 2013. The Lions, depending on whether they secure 3rd or 4th place in the Pacific Coast, will match them with either Southern California’s 1st- or 2nd-place seed, which will be either Belmont Shore or Santa Monica.
“We are nearing the end of the regular season and I think that we are moving toward the standard we need to be at,” stated Coach Tawake. “We will continue to work very hard and improve on the areas we need work on so we can be successful in the playoffs. The guys are beginning to believe in themselves, which is the most important part of any successful team. We are looking forward to the weeks ahead.”