Denver win sets up contest versus Ohio to decide PRO title

LAFAYETTE, Colo. - Two back-and-forth matchups not only made for a highly entertaining weekend of PRO Rugby, but displayed enhanced skills and team continuity as compared to the league's launch back in April. The first game of the weekend saw Sacramento send San Diego's losing streak to seven games with a 35-27 victory, while Denver needed a late comeback to deny San Francisco's upset bid.

The Breakers welcomed field general Kurt Morath back to the lineup after some time missed due to injury by lining up a penalty kick that the fly half would not miss three minutes into the game.

Sacramento leveled the score when its own major foreign signee, Mirco Bergamasco, connected on a penalty.

The Express' first possession inside the red zone did not lead to points thanks to a turnover created by Mike Te'o; however, Sacramento would immediately return deep inside San Diego's 22-meter line, where former AIG Men's Junior All-American prop Val Lee-Lo rumbled in from five meters out for the game's first try.

The Express would increase its lead prior to the halftime whistle when Eagle John Quill caught the Breakers napping around the pillars, and broke free into San Diego's half. The flanker's next touch of the ball resulted in a try and a 15-3 advantage for the home team after Bergamasco's successful conversion.

The second half opened with a penalty by the Breakers in front of the posts for Bergamasco to score Sacramento's 18th unanswered point. Desperately needed to halt the Express' run, Te'o took a quick tap from his opponent's 22-meter line, and before Sacramento could realize what was happening, the Eagle full back dove into the try zone to cut the lead to 10 points.

Bergamasco again slotted three points before Te'o bagged his second try. A turnover created by the competition's leading tackler, Cecil Garber, was quickly swung wide to Andrew Suniula, who fended off multiple defenders before leaving a switch ball for Te'o to score his second try.

San Diego continued to mix its phases well between backs and forwards, and PRO debutante Pat Blair's cut-out pass to Taku Ngwenya sent the flyer into the try zone. Morath's second consecutive conversion gave the Breakers their first lead since the opening moments of the match, 22-21.

The closing 15 minutes in California's capital were some of the most exciting in PRO's young existence. First, Ryan Matyas, who has been making life difficult for opposing centers all season, broke through one tackle for a score, but Morath's unsuccessful conversion attempt left the door open for the Express to charge back - and it did.

Moving the ball right to left, winger Garrett Brewer collected a pass and stepped on the outside to cut beyond the end line, and Bergamasco's two points following the try stole the lead back for Sacramento. Nursing a one-point lead, Kyle Sumsion smelled the try line from just a few meters out and drove himself beyond the end line, and Bergamasco's third conversion wrapped a 35-27 win for the Express.

Playing amongst the swirling winds of Boxer Stadium in San Francisco, Orene Ai'i triggered the first points of the Rush's game against the Stampede with a skip pass that initiated a seamless set of offloads by the Rush covering 60 meters, sending Pila Iongi in for the try. Volney Rouse's conversion split the uprights, and San Francisco led, 7-0, early on.

Denver immediately bullied its way into San Francisco's half, beginning a back-and-forth flow to the game that would last the entire 80 minutes. Before long, Peter Dahl and Timana Tahu were involved in a give-and-go that sent Tahu sprawling into the corner pylon for the Stampede's first points.

The next points were awarded to the home team when clean ball off the lineout was quickly spin wide, where Jake Anderson again put Iongi away for his second score and brought San Francisco's lead to 12-5 at the 14th minute.

Five minutes later, Denver equalized the score via a driving maul that found Pedrie Wannenburg under the pile and beyond the end line for a captain's try. The first of three successful conversions by fly half Will Magie tied the game at 12-all.

San Francisco, however, would enter the locker room at the break with a lead thanks to a nifty behind-the-back pass from Devereaux Ferris to Life West teammate Ai'i, sneaking the center behind the defense. After Brendan Daly was brought down near the goal line thanks to an offload from Ai'i, the All Blacks Sevens legend quickly got to his feet to make a brilliant touch pass on the ensuing phase that would be enough to put No. 8 Bill Fukofuka in for the try.

As they did to open the match, the Rush began the scoring in the second period. Denver gifted the home side a turnover, and Saint Mary's College graduate Michael Haley handed off to another Saint Mary's alum in Rouse who took the ball all the way in for a try. Rouse converted his own score and extended San Francisco's lead to 12 points.

Denver got itself back into the game by pushing into Rush territory. Once near the end line, the Stampede patiently probed San Francisco's defense with its forwards, then sent the ball wide to Glendale Raptor try-scoring machine Martin Knoetze, who leaped into the try zone.

An unlikely ball runner helped to create Denver's next score when Eagle prop Chris Baumann made some positive meters before offloading to Mose Timoteo in traffic, and the ageless wonder slid beyond the line. A successful conversion from Magie tied the match, 24-24.

It was then San Francisco's turn to move the ball while inside its opponent's 22-meter line, but after failing to convert 10 minutes of positive field position into points, it appeared PRO was about to see its second game turn to sudden death overtime since Denver's Week 1 win over Ohio. Instead, Tahu sliced through the defense at the 73rd minute and threw a wide pass to Chad London for the Eagle center's fifth try of the season and the Stampede's first lead of the game - which they would defend for a thrilling, 31-24, win.

Denver's bonus-point win propels the team to the top of the PRO standings at 46 points - four points ahead of next week's opponent, Ohio. With just four points separating PRO's top two teams heading into the final weekend of play, an enticing matchup will close the league's inaugural season.

An Aviators bonus point win or a victory that does not allow Denver to earn its own bonus point would crown Ohio champions in front of its own fans in Obetz. If the Stampede can hold its four-point standings lead, Denver will obviously hoist the trophy.

The other PRO contest to close the season will be a Saturday, July 30, Northern California Derby between the Express and Rush in Sacramento.