Club Western Championships Preview

The Western Championships are proving to be an exciting weekend as the best teams from the west all vie for a spot in the National Championships.

-MEN'S DIVISION I-

Austin Blacks vs. Belmont Shore Rugby
Two of the nation's most successful teams will face one another this weekend, as the Austin Blacks welcome Belmont Shore into the Lone Star State. Both teams are battle-tested after a season of playing against some of the country's toughest opponents. Austin qualified via winning the Red River Region, and Belmont Shore won the Pacific Rugby Premiership (PRP). Many believe the winner of this game will likely be the favorite to win the National Championship in June.

Austin, always the bridesmaid never the bride, have made it to five National Championship games, but winning one has always eluded them. If their season is any type of precursor to the playoffs, the Blacks could be seeing that drought end this year. At the start of the year they went 5-0, but despite their undefeated start they were playing second fiddle to Dallas, as pundits were swept away with the Reds and their domination. That all came to a screeching halt when the Blacks put the Reds away with a 35-17 victory on March 24. From there the attention shifted as teams and the media sat up and took note. Even a late-season loss to the Reds wasn't enough to slow them down, as the Blacks still came away the top seed, and defeated Dallas a final time, 22-18, in front of a huge crowd at Austin's Burr Field in the Red River Championship. Coached by Tane Jerecevich, the Blacks are an experienced and well-drilled team, and they will know that if they stick to their game plan on both sides of the ball that they will be victorious. However, when faced with the caliber of a team like Belmont Shore, that is easier said than done.

Belmont Shore has had a strong season throughout 2018 and, while they have been one of the best teams in the West, dominating the 7s and 15s landscape for two decades, not many people predicted that they would be where they are today. The 2012 Division I National Champions and four-time Rugby Super League Champions were locked in a tussle with San Francisco Golden Gate over the second spot in the PRP ladder for most of the year. It took a bonus point try on the final whistle in the final regular season game for them to snatch second away from SFGG and set up a third encounter with Old Mission Beach Athletic (OMBAC). OMBAC had been the favorites for most of the season, having opened the year with a seven-game winning streak. In the final, however, it was all one-way traffic with Belmont winning, 52-29. Consistency will be the key to this match. If Belmont is able to carry their form from the tail end of the season into Sunday's match they'll be in for a real chance. For Austin if they can continue to be as dependable as they have been all year it will be theirs to lose.

 

-WOMEN'S DIVISION I-

Life West Gladiatrix vs. Utah Vipers:
Last Year's Division I Champion, Life West, will take on their semifinal opponent from last year, the Utah Vipers, as they continue their quest to repeat as champions. When these two faced off last year it was all one-way traffic with the Gladiatrix blowing the Vipers out, 73-12. This year the Vipers are out for revenge.  

The Gladiatrix have run through their schedule unscathed going 5-0, while compiling an impressive winning margin of thirty-eight points against a mixture of D1 and D2 opponents. One of the major reasons for their success has been the play of their full back, Cameo Motley. Motley has been a dominant force in attack for the Gladiatrix, crossing for eight tries in four games. Unfortunately for Utah, they won't be able to focus all their energy on defending her, as Life West's whole team is packed with players that have the potential to strike from anywhere at any time. Much of their bronze medal-winning side from the 2017 Club 7s National Championship continues to play for them, and they have playmakers all over the field. Utah will need to rely on their defensive structures if they are to mute the loud attack of Life West.

The Vipers have enjoyed a season in which they've mustered a sound 4-1 record, with their only loss coming against the Glendale Merlins D1 side. While they have not been as dominant in their victories as their opponents, the Vipers have been one of the best attacking teams in the country, and they have never been held to less than thirty points in a game all year. A lot of their offense is centered around their forward pack's ability to bully teams up front with hard and physical running lines, and then unleashing their backs through the space provided. For Utah to win they'll want to turn this game into a war of attrition and make Life West get down in the trenches with them, rather than trying to overplay their hand and play a game of great expanse. Utah face a stiff challenge and will have to be playing to the top of their abilities if they are to knock off the defending champions.

 

Tempe Ninjas vs. Austin Valkyries:
Two teams that have both enjoyed large degrees of success recently, in both 7s and 15s, will try to build upon their 15s resumes as Tempe faces Austin. The Ninjas come into the encounter with a 7-0 record while the Valkyries has struggled for consistency all year and comes in at 8-4-1. The winner of this game will likely be determined by which Valkyries team turns up.

Tempe has come to the forefront of women's rugby in the last couple of years, and after not making the Western Semifinals before last year, they now find themselves here in back-to-back years. Last year the Ninjas drew the Vipers in the Western Semis and bowed out early, as they were simply out muscled by the women from Utah. This year the Ninjas have been a completely different team and have improved from a 4-3 record at this stage to a now perfect 7-0. This transformation has had a lot to do with two catalysts of change, their fly half and inside center, Heleni Kuma and Erica Hiddink respectively. These two joined the Ninjas this year and have had an immediate impact, throwing up a combined 141 points this season. Playing in what are arguably the two most important positions in the backline, the Ninjas' chances of improving on last year's results begin and end with these two and their ability to get the ball over the advantage line.

The Valkyries have one of the deepest, most diverse, and impressive women's clubs in the country and that depth has really shone over the past few years. This is demonstrated by the fact that this will be their third quarterfinal appearance in five years and in sevens they have made the last two national tournaments. This year, however, has not been at the same level as what they are accustomed to. Part of this has been the Valkyries taking on a more ambitious spring schedule than they had previously, by playing in the women's edition of the Rugby Gold Cup. When they are on their game, as they have been to close out the season, they look as if they can match it with the best in the country. Austin has the ability to score, and score a lot, with any one on their team. This has the potential to cause headaches for the Ninjas in defense and, if Austin can strike a solid balance and not become one dimensional in attack, they will be a tough beat on the weekend. 

 
-MEN'S DIVISION II-

Eastside Tsunami vs. Denver Barbarians:
One of the most decorated club teams of all time goes up against a team making their first foray into the Western Semifinals, as the Denver Barbarians take on the Eastside Tsunami. The Barbarians have run the table going 12-0, while Eastside Tsunami has gone an impressive 10-2 in the Pacific North.

This is the first year that the Barbarians have reached the National Quarterfinals since moving down to Division II. Prior to their relegation they had been one of the most dominant teams of the 80s, reaching the Division I National Semifinals six times in the decade. In the 90s, they won the 1990 National Championship. They later joined the Rugby Super League, winning the competition in 1999, and played in that competition until it disbanded. Since then they haven't reached the illustrious heights they once did, but this year that could all change. After a disappointing finish to their Division II campaign in 2017, they have made quick work of teams that they've come up against this year, winning their games by an average of 45 points. One of the major reasons behind their success has been outside center Michael Al-Jiboori, who through the course of the season has run in 13 tries and continued his impressive form since the Barbos' 2017 Club 7s silver medal finish. The talent doesn't end with Al-Jiboori; it runs rampant through the team with multiple players on the team running in 6 or more tries, including standouts such as Eric Sykes, Jr., who was the Frontier Championship MVP. The Barbarians are a quick and insanely fit team that has depth from 1-23. They will look to run the wind out of the Tsunami early and continue to use their speed and stamina to their advantage.

For the Tsunami they, don't have the same storied history as the Barbarians, but every story has to start somewhere, and they will be hoping for their start in 2018. The Tsunami played in an incredibly tight Pacific North competition where the difference between first and second was settled via bonus points and the difference between first and third was one win. While the wins might not pop out in the same way that the Barbarians do, they've been able to build character through their matches, and shocked the San Jose Seahawks by dethroning Northern California's hold on the Pacific North Division II title. They've had to fight for their wins this year and have shown tremendous resiliency throughout. One of the players who has helped lead the way for the Tsunami in their landmark year has been their outside center, Lopeti Aisea, who has scored ten tries for them on the season. It should be a magnificent duel between the two outside centers this weekend, and the standard of play that these two dictate will likely tell the story of who won and lost the game come Saturday.

 
San Diego Old Aztecs vs. San Antonio Rugby:
Both teams are returning to the National Quarterfinals this year after having an extended hiatus from the national playoffs. For the Old Aztecs, this will be the first time that they've been in the quarterfinals for six years, after a heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin on their way to the national final. Meanwhile, for San Antonio, this will be their first trip back since 2002. Both teams will be hungry and eager to make the most of this chance because they, maybe more than most, know how rarely opportunities such as these present themselves.

 The Old Aztecs are no stranger to the quarterfinals having qualified for them four times before, and they know what it takes to win one going to the semifinals twice. They have enjoyed some ups and downs along the way this year, but things have seemingly clicked in their playoff run. Their three losses came to the teams that won the three pools within the Pacific South competition: the Oceanside Chiefs, Las Vegas Irish, and Pasadena Rugby. However, in a twist, the Old Aztecs beat each one of these teams in the playoffs and, in doing so, booked their ticket to Fort Worth. With few exceptions, they have not blown out many of their opponents, a reflection on the quality of their opposition. The Pacific South Men's Division II competition has perhaps the greatest parity in the nation, and San Diego is hopeful it's prepared them for the road ahead. They will know how to fight their way out of a corner - something that will be required if they are to go the distance.

For San Antonio, they have been dominant most of the year going 8-2 in a similarly challenging league loaded with parity, and produced an overall point differential of 314. However, they have been prone to a couple of slip-ups and lost to opponents they feel as though they should have beaten. The inconsistences that have plagued them through the season seem to have slipped away now as they are currently enjoying a six game winning streak in which they have never scored less than 40 and their lowest margin of victory has been 17. This included a victory over a powerful Dallas Rugby D2 team that has now been denied the opportunity to play before its home fans. If this San Antonio team comes out on Saturday, the Old Aztecs could have their hands full. However, if they have one of their off days, it could potentially be a long wait to get another shot at the title.

-WOMEN'S DIVISION II-

Sacramento Amazons vs. St. Louis Sabres:
The Amazons and St. Louis Sabres will line up against one another this weekend as they both bid to make it through to the National Semifinals. If the Amazons are successful this will be their first trip back since 2015 and if the Sabres win it will be their first trip ever.

The Amazons have been on fire this year, going 10-2 on the season and winning their games by an average margin of 46 points. This has been a far cry from last season where they went 5-5 on the year. One of the big reasons for the turnaround has been their center combination of Kiana Saffings, Ofolangi Mailangi, and Tonya Wessman (who doubles as a flanker). Together the three of them have combined to score thirty-seven tries on the year; last year combined they only scored six tries. It is dangerous to have two of these ball runners on the field at the same time, but when paired with Wessman's ability to slot into flanker when called upon, it poses a real triple threat.

St. Louis qualified for the first-time last year and bowed out to Old Pueblo, who they could face again if both teams win on Saturday. The Sabres have been on a tear this year going 6-1 and winning by an average of 38 points. Their one blemish came against the Kansas City Jazz, and it wasn't pretty, going down, 51-5. However, they redeemed themselves in the Frontier Championship game, beating the Jazz, 41-17. If they are able to carry this form into their match with the Amazons on Saturday they'll be in with a good chance of getting a rematch of last year's quarterfinal against Old Pueblo.
 

Old Pueblo Lightning vs. Austin Valkyries D2:
It should be a very interesting match-up when Old Pueblo takes on the Austin Valkyries D2 side. After sailing to a 9-2 record this year the Valkyries D2 will be making their first quarterfinal appearance. Old Pueblo, in contrast, will be making their second appearance ever in the quarterfinals after going 9-1 on the season.

For Austin, this is their first year that they've been eligible to enter a second side in Division II, and they couldn't have asked for a better start to their program. In their first year, they were able to go 9-1 in competitive play, and their only loss was an upset to Tulsa Rugby - who they then beat in the opening round of Red River playoffs. One of the many reasons behind the success of the Valkyries this season has been Kristie Ritchie, the team's outside center. She has been the star of the season for them, so far, scoring fourteen tries. Ritchie is just one of the many players on the Valkyries capable of scoring, as the team has scored over 300 points throughout the season.  

The Lightning are back for a second year and are looking to repeat and improve upon their debut performance last year where they went through to the National Semifinals. The Lightning have been a class above their Division II opponents all year, and their only loss was to the Division I Tempe Ninjas, who have also made it through to the National Quarterfinals. Since their loss to Tempe, Old Pueblo have really kicked it up a gear, going on a five-game winning streak (including two playoff games), and they have won those games by an average of thirty-four points and scored at least fifty points in all of the games. In similar fashion to the Valkyries, the key component of the team's attack comes from their outside center, Jessica Szakacs, who has crossed for ten tries on the year. Look for Old Pueblo to be putting the ball in her hands a lot this weekend.

 
-MEN'S DIVISION III-

Bend Roughriders vs. Wichita Barbarians:
2015's Division III National Champions, the Wichita Barbarians, will take on the Bend Roughriders from the Pacific Northwest. Both teams are yet to concede a game this year, and they appear to be two well-matched teams.

The Roughriders caught many off guard this year with the sudden transformation that they've gone through. After last year's record of 1-9 won them the wooden spoon in a higher division, they've gone from the basement to the penthouse and completely changed their program around. A lot of this change comes down to a change in their defensive philosophy. Last year they were able to put up points, scoring roughly 75 less than they did this year, but on defense the shift has been seismic. In the 2016-17 season Bend conceded 373 points; this year they have only let in 35. Over the course of ten games they are, on average, giving up a bit more than a penalty goal a game. It is by far and away the stingiest defense in the playoffs. It will have to be at its impenetrable best come Saturday if they are to survive the slings and arrows thrown at them by Wichita.
 
The Barbarians will be making their first appearance in the national playoffs since they won the whole thing in 2015, and they've come prepared. The men from Kansas have a lethal attack. In their six league games they scored on average sixty-four points a game, and in their playoffs they've averaged over 50 points per game. Potentially the scariest thing about the Barbarians attack is that they have multiple weapons. In fact, four of their players have scored seven or more tries on the season, and 2015 National Championship MVP Steve Wright is still a fixture in the Wichita backline. This match will look to prove whether or not the old adage of "Defense wins championships" is true, and if Wichita's late scare against Colorado Springs will wake them up into the 80-minute form they'll need to dispense a formidable Bend side. It should be a great game and one that is a complete toss-up.

 
Santa Fe Santos vs Austin Blacks D3:
To close out the Division III National Quarterfinals, Santa Fe will take on Austin Blacks D3, which is Austin's third side. This is the first time that either team has made it into the national playoffs. Santa Fe fell one game short of making it last year, and the Austin Blacks have made it this far with their first and second teams, but never their third side. In fact, Austin is the first team in USA history to send its third competitive side to this level of the national stage, which is a testament to the strength of their organization.

Austin comes into the weekend in fine form after completing a perfect regular season in which they trounced their opposition in the playoffs to make it to the national stage. They are by all definitions a complete team. They have let in only 91 points in 12 games, and to complement the stingy defense they have scored over 600 points. One of the standouts for them all season has been their wing, Michael Taylor, who has contributed fourteen tries to their total. When a wing scores this often it is an indication that the Blacks will be looking to swing it wide and stretch the defense as much as possible. The Santos will be wary not to turn into accordion defense by being sucked into the middle of the field and left scrambling out wide.

 
The Santos have been one of the many teams in this year's playoffs that has been trending upwards for a while and has finally been able to put it all together. All though at the start of the season that did not seem to be the case. They lost their opener to the regular season champions, El Paso Scorpions, and then two weeks later lost by a comprehensive margin to the third-placed Albuquerque Aardvarks. However, since that loss they have steadied the ship and have shown tremendous heart to win some close games that went down to the wire. Notably they won their Pacific South Championship against the Beaumont Bluehawks courtesy of a penalty in the final 5 minutes of the game. The heart and resiliency that they have displayed in the latter half of the season will serve them well this weekend, as playoffs usually show that things will get tough and things will go awry. When they do, the Santos' resiliency will need to shine through. It should be an excellent game and hard fought for both teams.

Entry to the Western Championships is free all that you have to pay is $10 parking per day. If you can't make it to the Championships you can watch it via  usarugbytv.com