Western Conference Teams Cinch Four Spots in the 2023 Championship in Thrilling Fashion
What a weekend in San Jose! The sun was out, and stands were packed to see the second Western Conference leg of PR7s 2023 summer campaign. Silicon Valley Rugby Club and San Jose State were present as Affiliate Clubs, and the SVRC played a fantastic youth session during the halftime intermission.
The on-field stakes were high and could not be clearer - the Women's Loonies and Men's Experts were sitting in prime position, needing only one win to advance to the finals. Every match mattered immensely for the other six teams to book their ticket to DC.
The women's side of the bracket kicked off in the semi-final matchup featuring the Loonies and Rhinos x Loggerheads. Right from the first kickoff, the Loonies looked locked in, with an early score from Brazilian Bianca Silva. However, the Rhinos x Loggerheads signaled their intent to make matters as challenging as possible for the favorites. Reapi Ulunisau scored two tries to give the green squad the lead, and Shalaya Valenzuela cut down the deficit in the second half. But ultimately, a score from USA star and 2x Olympian Alev Kelter put the Loonies up for good and into the final.
With the Loonies result in the books, the pressure multiplied on the Retrievers and Experts. The Loonies win meant that the winner of this game would join the Loonies as the second team in DC. The favored Retrievers, having narrowly missed out on 1st in Minneapolis, would be up against it from the get-go. The opening kickoff was contested in the air by Liz Tafuna and judged to be a yellow card offense, sending the Retrievers down to 6 for two minutes. A try from Mariana Nicolau almost immediately put the Experts up and would remain that way until halftime despite intense Retrievers pressure and the willing-on of the home crowd. In the second half, an Experts scrum would create a blind side space for Olympian Ariana Ramsey to exploit, giving the Experts a much-needed two-score lead. While a late fantastic kick chase score from emerging New Zealand star Kalyn Takitimu Cook brought tension into the closing minute of the game, the Experts held on to book their spot in DC.
On the men's side, the Experts and Loonies faced each other for the first time. Returning star Nolan Tuamoheloa, making his first appearance in 2023, made his presence felt immediately, finding space out wide and scoring. The score would be flipped, however by Marcus Tupuola, whose shifty footwork broke the Experts defense and found him scoring easily under the posts. In the second half, a fantastic run of play from Terran Meek, who regained his feet after being stopped short of the try line, returned the lead to the Experts. Again, the Loonies fought back with a score from big man Ryan Santos. Ultimately, a costly Loonies error would see the ball end up in the hands of speedster Darell Williams, who would not be caught. The final score of 15-14 would send the Experts to a guaranteed place in DC.
In another thriller, the men's Retrievers and Rhinos x Loggerheads found themselves in a similar, all-determining semi-final. The Retrievers scored early, with new addition and USA International Faitala Talapusi scoring less than a minute in. However, the Rhinos x Loggerheads fought back, with three consecutive tries from Matai Leuta, Iowane Temba, and Derek Adams to give them a 17-5 lead. With their backs against the wall, a late break from Adam Channel cut the score to seven with under a minute to play. In a remarkable sequence, Talapusi scored his second try with no time remaining on the clock. However, the conversion was unsuccessful, avoiding the first overtime this season in PR7s and depriving the local Retrievers fans of any hope of advancing to DC.
With all Western Conference tickets to DC decided before the second act of the day, pride was on the line for the teams. The women's Retrievers wanted to give the home crowd something to cheer about, putting away the Rhinos x Loggerheads 17-7. On the men's side, a barnburner of a match saw the Loonies defeat the Retrievers 24-21, notably seeing Dan Norton score his first try in Loonies colors.
In the finals, the Loonies and Experts women kicked off first. Right from the get-go, the Loonies looked as if they would make it two wins from two starts as Canadian Caroline Crossley scored early on. A second try from Alev Kelter put the Loonies up two scores as the teams went into the break 10-0. The Experts, however, would start the second half strong, as some great play between Chiharu Nakamura and Ariana Ramsey led the Experts down the field to put Su Adegoke in for a score to cut the difference to 10-7. Some tense back and forth ensued, with the Loonies threatening to put the game away. In a thrilling conclusion, Experts stalwart Amanda Berta found space on the blind side of a ruck and ran away from all pursuers to put the Experts up 14-10 with no time left on the clock. The win marked the first Experts women's circuit win in history and was celebrated enthusiastically by the entire team and coaches.
In the men's final, the Rhinos x Loggerheads squared off against the Experts in a rematch from the 2022 championship. Tucker Trickey scored on a nice passing sequence from the Rhinos x Loggerheads to give the green side an early advantage. The trend of back-and-forth matches continued, though, as Pita Vi continued his excellent run of form in 2023 to take the lead with a converted try. The scoring declined for a couple of minutes as the physicality and errors increased on the part of both teams. After halftime, the Rhinos x Loggerheads were the first to break the deadlock, with Iowane Temba and Tucker Trickey scoring twice to put them up 15-7. With almost no time remaining, a great piece of overlapping running by Madison Hughes and Corey Jones saw the Experts cut the lead to 3 while declining the opportunity to kick the conversion. However, time ran out on the Experts, and the Rhinos x Loggerheads picked up their first win since taking home the men's championship in 2022.
The finals of San Jose set up a preview of the semi-finals in the DC Championship, as both teams there will face off for the right to play the best of the East, to be determined next Sunday in Pittsburgh.
Advancing teams to DC Championship:
Women's: Loonies, Experts
Men's: Experts, Rhinos x Loggerheads
Women's Player of the Tournament: Chiharu Nakamura
Men's Player of the Tournament: Iowane Temba
Women's Top 7: Caroline Crossley, Carissa Norsten, Rafaela Zanellato, Kalyn Takitimu Cook, Spencer Boldt, Reapi Ulunisau, Chiharu Nakamura
Men's Top 7: Marcus Tupuloa, Derek Adams, Branco Du Preez, Iowane Temba, Simi Moala, Faitala Talapusi, Naima Fuala'au