The top level of men's rugby competition in America, the USA Rugby Super League begins their playoffs this weekend after a hard fought regular season. Founded in 1997, the RSL is composed of the top sixteen teams in the USA divided into two Conferences, the Red and Blue.
This weekend the Top four teams, respectively, from the Red and Blue Conferences square off in the first round of the playoffs. The fruit of a very competitive season is now ready to bear.
To make matters even more exciting, there’s not a clear cut favorite in the entire bunch. San Francisco Golden Gate and the Life Running Eagles have shown brightest during the regular season, but it would be silly to overlook New York Athletic Club or Belmont Shore. One is the defending champ and the other has seen more RSL finals than any team in league history.
Life has gotten accolades for going undefeated, but the same can be said of Belmont Shore who have only a tie to blemish their record this season. The Chicago Lions, Denver Barbarians, Old Blue, and Dallas Harlequins are also battle tested and will be dangerous opponents.
The visiting teams will have their work cut out for them though. In the last six years, home teams have put together a 20-3 record in the first round of the playoffs.
Red #1 San Francisco Golden Gate vs. Blue #4 Dallas Harlequins
On paper, this should be a blowout. Dallas (4-3) snuck into the playoffs after a mediocre regular season where they struggled mightly on the road. Now, they travel to face the RSL’s most powerful team. With 317 points scored (45.2/game) and only 106 allowed (15.1/game), SFGG (6-1) has rolled through their opposition, especially down the stretch.
The team has firepower to spare as they boast RSL leading point scorer Volney Rouse and three players in the Top 10 on the RSL Try Scoring list. They can play defense too. Dallas will need to play the game tight and avoid getting into a scoring duel. They will need to rely on the boot of Vaughn Crowe to keep the points ticking on the scoreboard. If they have to chase the game forget about it, this one will turn ugly.
Rugby America Pick: San Francisco Golden Gate
Blue #1 Life Running Eagles vs. Red #4 Chicago Lions
This could be the best game on the playoff docket this weekend. This is a very tough draw for Life (7-0) and not your run of the mill #4 seed. The Chicago Lions (4-2-1) have plenty of playoff experience and have been to the semifinals each of the last four seasons. Life made a magnificent return to the RSL with a 7-0 regular season record.
With the No. 1 defense in the RSL (82 points allowed, 11.7/game), good centers, and a great kicking game with Nolte Coetzee, this team is built to win playoff type games. The Lion’s attack is led by prop Nate Ellis with 7 tries on the season, which highlights the workman like style of the team. Even though they are on the road to face Life, the Lions won’t back down. Expect this one to be a battle.
Rugby America Pick: Life Running Eagles
#2 Red Belmont Shore vs. #3 Blue Old Blue
A very intriguing first round matchup, Old Blue (4-3) needed a win in Week 8 to secure their playoff spot while Belmont Shore (6-0-1) was… well, Belmont Shore. Aside from some player eligibility drama that cost them a point in the standings they did just about everything right this season. Including handing San Francisco Golden Gate their only loss.
Belmont Shore has the third ranked offense in the RSL and 3rd ranked defense to go with it. They also have two of the RSL’s top try scorers in League Leader Peter Sio (eight tries) at outside center and wing Sinipati Uiagaleilei (7 tries).
Old Blue will counter with flyhalf Troy Hall who leads a balanced Old Blue attack. This game could be very entertaining as both teams can put points on the scoreboard. Old Blue is going to need a big effort to knock off the home team.
Rugby America Pick: Belmont Shore
#2 Blue New York Athletic Club vs. #3 Red Denver Barbarians
The defending champs begin their title defense against the surging Denver Barbarians (4-3) in another great game. Both teams come into the game playing well and it should make for a tight matchup. NYAC (5-2) has finished really strong going 3-0 down the stretch and only surrendering 20 points in those three games. After starting the season by giving up points in droves, NYAC has buckled down and are ready for the playoffs.
The Barbarians come into the game on a similar roll as they recovered from a 1-2 start to make the playoffs. Their only loss down the stretch was a narrow one point defeat against Belmont Shore. Both teams are fully capable of scoring points. NYAC is led by fullback Dan Power (103 points) who was the runner up in the race for most points scored in the RSL this season.
NYAC is an experienced side with a handful of current and aspiring National Team players. Denver has a balance attack that saw 16 different players account for 32 total tries on the season. Flyhalf Maximo De Achaval leads the attack after coming back from injury and he’s played a big part in Denver’s surge.
Rugby America’s Pick: New York Athletic Club
This weekend is a step closer to the Super League finals on May 30th which will, once again, be aired on ESPN Classic. These four games should provide plenty of drama and action to satisfy any rugby fan.
Stay tuned as Rugby America will have coverage of the 2009 RSL Playoffs including roundups, stats, and scores.