This weekend is the last weekend of the regular season for most NorCal sides and all the D1 sides. As far as the playoff picture, that is set. Four NorCal teams have secured spots going into this weekend, so there isn’t a spot at risk.
Life West has rolled through the competition, is undefeated and has the number 1 seed currently 9-0. Santa Rosa and the EPA Razorbacks both sit at (7-1-1) as they ended their match-up earlier in the year with a draw. Their games coming weekend will not impact the seeding as Santa Rosa has secured the 2nd seed, but it is a matter of momentum for both sides.
The last slot is being taken by the Sacramento Lions (5-4) who will face Santa Rosa this weekend. The record is not what fans may have been use to from the Lions, however last year’s drop off was in large part due to a turnover of veteran players and having a number of younger players . The other factor for a younger Lions team is also the power shift in the league with the addition of Life West.
Most clubs in NorCal anticipated some what of a power shift when the D2 National Champions moved up. A national champion it will bring some additional competition but when a program with the infrastructure and numbers like Life West comes in to the competition it’s not just adding, but it can really shift the level greatly. Life West defiantly believed they’d have an impact in D1. Life West’s Coach and Athletic Director Adriaan Ferris said the following as to why he felt they’d make a mark in the new competitions. “ It's fair to say that we expect a lot from all players in the program. Our sole aim is to help a player maximize his or her potential. Many players are continuously creating new standards and expecting more from themselves on a daily basis. This equates to more internal competition for places in the team. We believe that talent is never enough and as a result, we don¹t always select the most talented player in a position. All players are required to earn their spot on a weekly basis. Their attendance to training, work ethic and willingness to compete come into play."
Ferris went on clarify “We would be lying if we said we didn¹t expect to do well this year. To be sitting at 9-0 heading into the playoffs is nice but that record means nothing in knock out rugby. We have to earn the right to proceed in this competition. To do that we have to front up on the games that count. We are looking forward to that challenge.”
Most have attributed Life West’s success to the top caliber players without understanding what Coach Ferris noted that all the players are required to meet certain expectations, and its that not just talent that gives them their success. However with the forming and launching of the new PRO Rugby league which Ferris is a member of the San Francisco coaching staff, some wonder will there be a drop off to Life West’ prowess? Ferris addressed that by saying "I come from a country where integration is key to the national team's success. There are many layers in NZ rugby and at each level, the aim of a coach is to prepare and develop players to take the step up. Its seems natural to me so when PRO Rugby came along, I actively encouraged players to participate in the combines. Surely our role as a club at a lower level is to “promote up”; to help players maximize their potential? Life West has a long term approach to what we are doing.”
Ferris did report that the club has felt the lost of some of its talent to the PRO Rugby ranks, but on the same hand he believes that the goal for his club is to get players to the next level if they can play there. “You only have to look at the results of our D2 sides to see the effect the it (PRO Rugby) had had” say Ferris. Looking at the positive Life West believes that loosing players because they are going up to the next level is a good thing, its something they are proud of to have so many players now playing for the professional teams in San Francisco and Sacramento. “Our aim is to help players become professionals, Eagles and Olympians” Ferris says.
While the loss of many talented players to PRO Rugby has impacted Life West, Ferris says its actually benefited the club. Ferris taking the positive approach says “The Losing players has merely created an opportunity for others. As a consequence, a number of players are now getting more time in front of the coaching staff and therefore more opportunities to develop their game. Some of these players will be playing pro rugby in the next 12-24 months.”
In all the action this year the eyes have been looking at last year’s league champion the loaded EPA Razorbacks, the entering of Life West into the mix, caused many to forget about Santa Rosa, who fields some experienced players and some newer, younger talent. For most of the year Santa Rosa went under the radar playing competitive games and solid rugby. It seems however when the opportunities arose, Rosa was able to rack up big victories. Remember their only loss came to Life West, and they played to a draw vs a very talented, experienced and physical EPA team.
Santa Rosa has an excellent coaching team with Rick Humm and Allen Petty, who employ solid structured rugby. There isn’t anything flashy, they aren’t blessed with athletes who have great size, but they do have committed rugby players who execute the game plan. "We've been blessed to have engaged our local Fijian community and have an influx of those players. Its been priceless" says Petty.
While Petty admitted his was not surprised by the teams who made the playoffs, he was less confident at the start of the season that his side would play as well as they have. "Santa Rosa has played a very structured system designed by rugby mastermind Rick Humm" said Petty.
Petty’s team did loose several players PRO Rugby (including great lock Robert Meeson). Coach Petty believes the departure of a number of players from Division 1 teams will have an impact on the playoff teams.
Santa Rosa will face the Sac Lions this weekend, and while they are set to face the EPA Razorbacks in a few weeks, and a loss to the Lions would not impact the seeding, it is a matter of momentum for the playoffs. Petty said "We will play our best team vs. the Sac Lions. Obviously we will hold out injured players but if the Lions beat us, that is because they would have been the better team that day".
Last year the EPA Razorbacks terrorized the league with their fast open play and physicality. No one beat them last season (they did draw with Fresno, but no one beat them) and they represented NorCal at D1 Nationals. However with the structure last year of the NorCal Playoffs (which they faced Santa Rosa) and the addition of the California Cup competition, they experienced some significant injuries in going into Nationals. The Razorbacks didn’t use that as an excuse last season, but rather use that to motivate them in the off season and the work has translated into results on the field. While they Razorbacks aren’t going into the final game of the season undefeated, they come in with the potential to easily make a run in the playoffs and back to nationals.
The Razorbacks are another NorCal team that experienced some player loss to PRO Rugby including the hard hitting flanker Fatai Vailala. However the Razorbacks continue to roll. They also understand the need for momentum and aren’t taking things lightly with the season coming to an end, but rather have stepped up their efforts. This Wednesday the Razorbacks traveled to Sacramento, but not to face the Lions early, but to scrimmage with PRO Rugby’s Sacramento side.
EPA continues to answer the bell and step up, which is great to see for a side that for a few years following its own D2 National Championship was spending time at the bottom of the league standings. For veteran, and Captain Siupeli "Steve" Sakalia this is exciting. "I was part of the D2 championship team and the youngest on that squad and had to live through the years where the Razorbacks finished with 1 to 2 wins, to now as the oldest player on the team that is going to each year playoffs is a good feeling" said Sakalia.
This weekend EPA will face a well oiled Life West side, but both play an open and quick style of play which could mean it will be a high scoring affair, or they will match up perfectly and it all slows to a grind? Life’s open play is fluid and yet structured, but they’ll be facing an always physical Razorbacks side that will apply pressure when they don’t have ball in hand.
At the time of publication on this story we had not been able to speak directly with members of the Sac Lions, and thus could not provide much insight. The Sac Lion have the coaching and players to still challenge in the playoffs, however having lower numbers than in years past an with the physical nature of competition in NorCal D1 playoffs their issue will be depth. The Lions’ biggest issue may be just having the depth currently going into the playoffs and if they are able to start a run, would they have the depth to sustain it? These are all question marks (partly as we aren’t able to get their take on the matter).
Regardless of all the insight, breakdown, and assessment you have to step on the field and play. When you play anything can happen, so all this could be out the window easily.