The opening round of the 2009 USA Rugby Super League playoffs nearly went according to plan. Since the RSL's inception in 1997, home teams have dominated the opening round, and road wins are a rarity.
It's a rarity, but it's not impossible.
For instance, this year, the Denver Barbarians bounced defending champions New York Athletic Club from the playoffs. The win sends the Barbarians to the semifinals where they join the San Francisco Golden Gate, Belmont Shore, and Life to decide who will head into the Super League Championship Game on May 30th.
Denver (5-3) received yet another superb effort out of flyhalf Maximo De Achaval in their 23-19 upset of NYAC (5-3). De Achaval put the exclamation point on the game with a magnificent chip and chase try in the final minutes of the game.
“When he first kicked the ball, I was thinking I was going to kill him,” Denver coach Dave Hodges said. “We had the ball in good field position and were building to something. So when he kicked it, I wasn’t impressed. But it bounced up and over their players and straight to him so it turned out to be a great play.”
Due to penalties exchanged by NYAC’s Dan Power and De Achaval, the score was deadlocked at 6-6 at halftime. The penalty exchanges continued early into the second half with Power giving NYAC a 12-9 lead after 58 minutes.
Denver scored the first try of the match when wing Jody Kramer chased down a kick and scored. Like a true championship caliber club, NYAC came right back and retook the lead with a James Hayter try and looked to be on their way to the semifinals.
“We had them trapped down [in] their end with two minutes to go but a comedy of errors allowed them to get some air,” NYAC coach Bruce McLane said. “A blocked kick, a penalty and before we knew it they were moving up field. You have to give credit to Maximo though. Our defensive line was set. They weren’t going through us, and he took a chance. Our fullback went one way; he went the other, and nobody knew how the ball would bounce.”
Added Barbarian coach Hodges, “It’s so good to finally be on the right end of a close finish for a change.”
The other close game of the weekend took place in Georgia where the Life Running Eagles snuck past a tough Chicago Lions squad 22-14. Life (8-0) looked to cruise into the semifinals as they took a 17-0 lead into halftime after tries from Garry Sullivan, Steve Petzel, and a penalty goal from Nolte Coetzee.
However, the Lions (4-3-1) did not quit. Tom Dolan and Matt Kelly both scored converted tries to cut the lead to 17-14 with 10 minutes left on the clock. With the game on the line, Sullivan added his second try of the day for Life and sealed the victory.
“We made some crucial mistakes in our own half, and you can’t afford to do that in playoff rugby,” Life coach Scott Lawrence said. “It allowed the Lions to get back into the match but we were able to put the foot on the gas again and come away with the result.”
Considering that they were playing in Division 1 last year, the victory was particularly satisfying for the Life players. The return of Life and its success has been a silver lining after RSL lost a interesting St. Louis team.
“It was really exciting being involved in playoff rugby,” Lawrence confirmed. “It’s been a long wait, but everyone enjoyed the day. And it’s great that we get to host a semifinal here next week.”
On the West Coast, Belmont Shore, once again, advanced to the semifinals with a 36-15 win over Old Blue. In a game much closer than the scoreline suggests, Belmont Shore clung onto a 22-15 lead before getting two tries in the final six minutes to pull away.
Belmont Shore (7-0-1) received a big game from their centers with Craig Wells and RSL-leading try scorer Peter Sio each scoring two tries. Kaine Elisara added the remaining try for Belmont Shore.
Old Blue (4-4) got tries from Tom Drewe and Alex MacLennon in the losing effort.
The final quarterfinal of the weekend went as expected with San Francisco Golden Gate rolling to a 48-13 victory over the Dallas Harlequins (4-4).
SFGG (7-1) streaked to a 22-3 lead at halftime and never looked back. Milemoto Pulu and Kevin Erskine each scored two tries apiece for the home side, and Volney Rouse added 13 points with his boot. Mose Timoteo, Faimalo Tapui, and USA 7’s stalwart Jone Naqica each touched down tries for SFGG to round out the scoring.
Vaughn Crowe supplies all of the offense for the Harlequins with a try, conversion, and two penalties.
“Dallas gave us some trouble early and disrupted our attack a little bit but we were able to manufacture some turnovers and get on top of them,” San Francisco coach Paul Keeler said. “We are all extremely excited to be hosting a semifinal. We know Denver will be tough but we are pumped up to do well.”
The semifinals includes a match between Denver and San Francisco Golden Gate. The game is a rematch from Week One of the RSL season. In that game, SFGG strolled to a 45-10 win over the Barbarians. It’s safe to say that Denver has come a long way since then, so a much closer result should be expected.
The other semifinal has Belmont Shore travelling to face off against Life in the battle of the unbeatens. This marks the first time since 1999 that these two teams have met in the RSL playoffs. Of course, up until this year, Life had not been in the RSL since 2002. This should be a great game and fitting for a RSL playoff game.