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Friday, May 19, 2017

DI West Regional Preview

Photo: Andrew Kearney
By Derek Sagehorn

The USA Rugby Division One playoffs continue this weekend with quarterfinals in the Western bracket. Four teams meet in the high desert of Tucson, Arizona to see who will advance to the club semifinals.

Belmont Shore v. Life West

North meets South in this draw between Belmont Shore and Life West. The boys from Long Beach knocked out Southern California rivals OMBAC two weeks ago 31-28.  Shore’s Andy Jackson scored in the final minutes to seal the win and the Southern California championship.

The team’s last met last fall in the California Cup when Life West outlasted Belmont Shore 27-20. Andy Jackson scored 13 points, including a try, in the early Cup action. If they want a different result, they’ll be need halfbacks Johnathan Gray and Hilton Mexted to spark the offense. Up front Sione Masoe will be key to sustaining attacking possession.

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For their part, Life West had a similarly emotional match. Recall last spring, Life West, in their first Division 1 season, lost to the Austin Blacks 30-17 in the semifinals. The two drew each other again for the Western repechage. The Gladiators traveled from the East Bay to Texas Hill Country for their rematch against the Blacks. A first-half 28 point blitz from the Gladiators looked to overwhelm the hosts but the Blacks fought back to within a try with ten minutes left. Life West pivot Gui Cazenave, however, put the visitors away with a final try to bring the score 36-28.

According to coach Adrian Ferris, this weekend’s match presents a new set of questions for the Gladiators: “We were pleased with parts of our game but we know the game against Belmont Shore will be a totally different proposition altogether.”

In spite of some early season departures, new leaders have emerged for Life West. Scrumhalf Devereaux Ferris, co-California Cup Most Valuable Player, and Zach Bonte, an All-American fresh from UCLA, have raised elevated the play and leadership of the squad. Per Ferris, the latter has been a pace setter for the team at open-side flanker. For Shore, there is also no envy tackling the hard-running of Maka Tameilau and Jay Finau.

Given all of the above, it’s hard to see this match coming down to anything but the final ten minutes. No rest for the victors because they’ll face winners of our other quarterfinal match.

SFGG v. Austin Huns

San Francisco Golden Gate and the Austin Huns will also meet in Tucson Saturday. This is Golden Gate’s return to USA Rugby playoffs after winning the Elite Cup and two Pacific Rugby Premiership titles since 2013. The Huns make their first appearance in Division 1 quarterfinals. Neither team have met before but the matchup no less compelling because of it.

The Austin Huns have invested heavily in their program over the past year and their returns are beginning to show. Coach Eugene Eloff has laid the groundwork for the club to transition from an amateur to high performance program. Signings like Michael Reid, Martin Knoetze and Mason Pedersen have bolstered the ranks. Last week the Huns traveled to Salt Lake and defeated Rugby Utah 57-37. Some members of the Division 2 squad ran on in the 2nd half and Eloff was mostly happy with their ability to stave off a Utah comeback. According to Eloff, creating a culture of squad competition and buy-in is key.

Golden Gate won the Pacific North two weeks ago by pasting the Oregon Rugby Sports Union 90-0. According to coach Neil Foote, the team can’t expect to replicate that performance. In that spirit they’ve been concentrating on decision-making near the tackle area on defense. “We’ve been working on recognizing on discipline… based on the picture in front of us, ‘Do we attack or settle into our defensive systems."

Foote will count on lock Brendan Daly, and loosies Opeti Okusi and Danny LaProvette to provide that possession platform. They will, however, be missing Langilangi Haupeakui due to bereavement. Sione Toumoua Haupeakui, the Eagles Number 8’s father, passed away earlier this week. Golden Gate will wear black arm bands as a sign of respect for the family on Saturday.

As hard as it may be, Golden Gate will need all of their focus to beat a talented Huns team. Both teams have the horses but whether they can keep their composure in attack will be key. The advantage may be with the Californians as Golden Gate, with seasoned journeymen like Danny LaProvette and Volney Rouse, have played in tournament finals each of the last four years. The Huns have made no secret of their plans to make the next step—there may be no better time to do so than on Saturday. 

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