Western Conference Kickoff Brings Lighting and Fireworks on and off the Field in Minnesota
The Western Conference kicked off in style at TCO Stadium in Eagan, Minnesota on June 24, 2023. Despite the initial challenge from the elements, including an hour-long lightning delay and complete evacuation of the stadium, the Minnesota rugby community turned out in style. The weather eventually turned immaculate, and the crowd was treated to thrilling matches. A halftime performance by local star Raffaella brought tremendous energy and festival atmosphere, alongside a costume/dance contest judged by The Hockey Guys.
The tournament started with the men, with a clash of the 2022 powerhouses in the Experts and Rhinos x Loggerheads. The Experts jumped out to an early lead, with a nice passage of play leading to Pita Vi finding Kauwe on an inside ball to score neatly under the posts. However, Christiaan Du Toit was able to level up the score after a brilliant run and find from Fijian international Waisea Nacuqu. In the second half, Vi was a playmaker again, setting up Jeremy "Missile" Misailegalu for a fantastic score. Rhinos x Loggerheads fought back, with Iowane Temba leveling up the score again. Two consecutive tries from the Experts, however, put the game out of reach despite a late push from the Rhinos x Loggerheads with a final score of 26-19.
In the second semifinal, the Golden State Retrievers took the field for the first time in franchise history against the home team Northern Loonies. A hard-hitting, defensive battle occurred, with conditions making clean ball and play challenging. The first breakthrough came from USA international Marcus Tupuola, scoring with a dramatic step off a scrum and cutting inside to put up the first 7. However, in the second half, emerging US talent Jack Wendling threw a monster stiff-arm and dotted down the first try in Retrievers history to even up the score. The decider ultimately came from D'Montae Noble, who scooped up a loose ball knocked forward and dashed into the try zone to put the Retrievers on top for their first-ever win. The game almost had a wild finish, as the kick to touch at the conclusion of the match was shanked and almost led to a late Loonies score.
On the women's side, in perhaps the match of the day, the Retrievers squared off against the Rhinos x Loggerheads. The first half was all SoCal, as a sideline dash by Fijiana star Younis Bese put the greens ahead almost right from the whistle. The Retrievers were able to even up the score, as a timely pass from Ruby Tui found Liz Tafuna making an angled run at the line where she would go on to score. However, the Rhinos x Loggerheads regained the lead, with Bese adding a carbon copy of her first score on the crowd side. Jessica Lu's fantastic fend and finish added to their lead right before the half to make the score 19-7. However, the Retrievers found a second wind, scoring immediately after a Tui dash led to an all-team try, ultimately put away by Autumn LoCicero. Tyra Norlander added another try to cut the lead to 2 after a brilliant turnover from Ruby Tui. With 20 seconds left, the Retrievers stole a Rhinos x Loggerheads lineout to gain one final possession. After a fantastic phase of play, Kelly Smith dotted down the winning score to put the final at 22-19 in one of the most exciting games in PR7s this year.
The other semifinal featured the Loonies and Experts in a battle of "core four" PR7s squads. Loonies opened up scoring with a try from Olivia De Couvreur. However, a brilliant passage of play from Olympian Ariana Ramsey gave Summer Harris-Jones enough space on the sideline to score in the corner, narrowly avoiding going into touch by centimeters. The Experts took the lead thanks to an Amanda Berta try, capitalizing on a great extension and effort to reach the line. However, the Loonies would ultimately walk away with the victory, with the winner scored by Shalaya Valenzuela. The lone-made conversion was the difference here.
In the third-place games, the men's Loonies defeated the Rhinos x Loggerheads thanks to a double from Indiana University product Noah Brown and Kahanu Koi. Derek Adams had the lone SoCal try with an impressive run around the outside. In the women's third-place match, Fijana took center stage as a hat trick from Ana Maria Naimasi. One from fellow countrywoman Younis Bese overcame two scores from Summer Harris-Jones and a physical try from KB Slaughter.
The finals both were barnburners. The men kicked off first, with the veteran Experts taking on the newcomer Retrievers. The Experts scored nearly immediately. Corey Jones, wearing the name of the late Giovanni Bonilla on his back, honored his friend with a try after an impressive reach for the line. An early yellow card from D'Montae Noble led to a numbers advantage that was capitalized on by Jacques Odendaal, and then Jones would score his second of the day to put the lead to 17-0. With the game looking increasingly out of reach, the Retrievers would bounce back, thanks to Noble's highlight machine bag of tricks. After making one tackler miss entirely and then fending off a second, Noble would jog the remaining 40 meters in to cut it to a two-score game at the half. In the second half, Peter Sio Jr scored under the posts to cut the lead to 17-12. In a bizarre passage of play to follow, a half-line break from Sio would bounce off Adam Channel and land squarely in the hands of veteran Tai Enosa who would score under the posts and give the Retrievers their first lead of the finals. The next few minutes would be back and forth on possession, with the Experts regaining the ball with under a minute to go. Jacques Odendaal would score his second and ultimate game-winning try with no time remaining to give the Experts their fourth tournament win in franchise history.
The women's final was equally enthralling, as the Retrievers took on the Loonies, with a matchup of coaches Kelly Griffin and Robin MacDowell facing off against each other for the first time. A solid run of play from the Retrievers to begin the match led to Brazilian Rafaela Zanellato making a powerful linebreak and scoring neatly under the posts. Some excellent back-and-forth play between the teams alternated linebreaks and turnovers. Both number 1s, Ruby Tui and Alev Kelter, traded fends, poaches, and tackles as neither team could gain clear momentum. However, the Loonies were able to cut into the lead right before the half, as a try from Shosh Seumanutafa in the corner brought the match to 7-5. The tension mounted in the second half as scores would not be easily conceded. Forced turnovers and steals by both teams led to limited time remaining on the clock. With the buzzer sounded, the Loonies had one final possession to score. With some chaotic bounces of the ball and seeming opportunities for the Retrievers to end the game, Renee Gonzalez became the hero of the tournament, finding space on the far sideline to dot down the winning score and put the Loonies up for good by a score of 10-7.
With the conclusion of the kickoff tournaments, the advantages are clear heading into the conference finals weekend. The west will now kick off first in San Jose, Calif. on July 15, 2023, with plane tickets to DC and glory on the line.
Experts - 13
Retrievers - 6
Loonies - 3
Rhinos x Loggerheads - 1
Loonies - 13
Retrievers - 6
Rhinos x Loggerheads - 3
Experts - 1
Loonies - 16
Headliners - 14
Experts - 14
Team - 14
Locals - 12
Retrievers - 12
Steeltoes - 6
Rhinos x Loggerheads - 4