Club Rugby Saturday Six Pack: 2019 Kicks-off With a Bang

The first weekend of competitive fixtures in 2019 is here and there is no shortage of quality matchups across the board this weekend. Despite it being early in the season there are some games that could have major playoff implications down the road.

Northern California Men's Division II: San Jose Seahawks v. Diablo Olde Gaels:

The best two teams in Northern California last year, from Divisions II and III were the San Jose Seahawks and the Diablo Olde Gaels, respectively. As they enter the new year, they also enter the same division, with the Odle Gaels being promoted into Division II. This will not be the Olde Gaels first season in Division II, but it will be their first time back since 2017. Meanwhile, the Seahawks will be focused on how they can improve upon an already remarkable 7-0-1 season in 2018. Both teams will have high hopes as they step onto the paddock this weekend, but only one will be able to start their season off on the right foot.

2018 was a renaissance year for the Seahawks, after spending the previous three years with a combined record of 3-27, winning only 10% of their games. In 2018, they went 7-0-1 in the regular season, with their only tie coming in a 46-46 contest against the Sacramento Blackhawks. When asked about catalyst behind their remarkable turn-around, coach Mike Haynes credited it to, "A psychological change in the club was key. We now have a very open forum for our goal discussion, culture on and off the pitch and some key structural changes within the game plan." With the club culture addressed in 2018, they are now shifting towards setting their sights on increasing the depth and skill level of the players at the club in 2019. "We have set new club/squad/team/individual goals for this year," said Haynes. "These included an additional squad being entered into D3, increasing our fitness levels with "baseline" programs from New Zealand and Ireland."

The Olde Gaels share a similar story to the Seahawks going, a combined, 6-22 in the three seasons prior to 2018; however, they took a different approach to improving themselves.  Rather than sticking to Division II play, they moved down to Division III for a year and ran rampant through their opposition. They went 6-1, while scoring an average 45 points per contest. Both sides made it through the Pacific North championship games for their respective divisions last year, ultimately falling to their Pacific Northwest opponents. One of the big keys to the Old Gaels' ability to right the ship in 2018 was the addition of Koni Havea. The barnstorming outside center accounted for eleven of the team's tries last year and dominated every team he came up agaisnt. He will again play a large part in the Olde Gales' attacking plans this year. If they control the middle of the field as effectively as they did last year, the transition back into Division II will be a lot smoother.

There is an apparent abundance of dominating backs in the north of California, as the Seahawks have dynamic play maker of their own in Mike "Salsa" Mitchell- a full back who accounted for 200 of the team's points last year. Haynes is happy to see Mitchell return again this year, but he expects solid contributions from others on his team, "Salsa was a terrific addition to the club, along with his dance partner Andrew Early. They brought in some terrific rugby education from Cal Poly and experience from playing in Sydney.  We also have a great team concept as well as a new captain in Mitchell Cunningham to lead us for the 2019 campaign." 

Both sides will enter Saturday's match, relatively blind, not knowing what to expect from their opponent; as it has been two years since the two teams have faced each other and they both have changed significantly.  According to the Seahawks assistant coach Tory Golino, they are expecting a team that will run them around the pitch; "We expect them to be tough and fast, just like most teams in D2." Golino adding, for them to win on Saturday and to reach the same heights as they did last year it's about their ability to, "Stick to our game plan for the season and game to game.... and work the processes that we have been working on through the pre-season." The Olde Gaels will be taking a similar approach and hoping by focusing on themselves and working towards staying within their game plan they will be able to walk out on top. Both teams have lethal backlines, and scoring shouldn't be an issue for either team. Where the two squads will be separated is in their set pieces. Whoever can control the scrums and the lineouts with greater efficiency will, in all likelihood, kick their 2019 off in the ideal fashion.  

 

Northern California Men's Division II: Vacaville Old Dogs v. Olympic Rugby Club:

One of the biggest stories heading into the 2019 season is Olympic Rugby Club will no longer be participating In Division I, as they have stepped down into Division II. Olympic is one of the most storied teams in club rugby. In 15s they finished second nationally in 2011 and third in 2007 and 2008; while in 7s they finished second in 2003 and third in 2002 and 2004. They will start their tenure in Division II against Vacaville Old Dogs.  It won't be an easy test for Olympic, as the Old Dogs played a competitive season last year, finishing third in their pool last year with a 5-3 record. Vacaville was led by their centers pairing of Connor Kanellis and Jeremy Dunn. Together the two combined for nine tries on the season and were the main channel for the Old Dogs' attack. However, the middle channel won't be as open to the Old Dogs as they may have been accustomed to, as Olympic has a sharp inside of their own in Josh Tucker. It will be an interesting hit out for Olympic Club and likely will show what their first season in Division II will have in store for them.

 

Pacific South Men's Division III: San Diego Old Aztecs D3 v. Beaumont Bluehawks:

In what has the makings to be the most important match of each team's season, the San Diego Old Aztecs D3 will host the Beaumont Bluehawks for their first game of 2019. Both sides are coming off accomplished 2018s, the Old Aztecs D3 played as "Old Aztecs B" last year and won Group B in the Pacific South Men's Division II-B competition, after going 5-1. The Bluehawks had a successful year too, as they won the Pacific South Division III and made it to the National Quarterfinals. When they meet on Saturday each team will have dreams of a spot in the national playoffs in the back of their minds, but they know to get there they will first have to take care of what lies directly ahead of them. The Bluehawks, they will be looking to their inside center, and leading point scorer in 2018, Kamron Rajabpoor to carry the load. Rajabpoor scored nine tires on the season. He will need to be on top of his game come Saturday, as the Old Aztecs like to score. Last year they piled on 176 points in six games, only failing to score four tries once. It should be a high paced back and forth game and one that both teams look back on as a turning point.  

 

Pacific South Women's Division II: Old Pueblo Lightning v. Las Vegas Slots:

Old Pueblo Lightning looks to continue dominating their division when they take one of the biggest rivals, the Las Vegas Slots. The Lightning have not lost a game in Division II Pacific South play since February 2017 and their opponents, the Slots, with the exception of their games against the Lightning, have not lost a game against Division II opponents since April of 2017. Not only are both of these teams nearly untouchable, but they both possess the ability to stack points on at will. The Lightning averaged 36 points per contest last year; while the Slots scored, on average, 32 points a game. With the format of their competition changing from eight teams in the division to only four, this weekend provides a good opportunity for each team to feel each other out. It also puts a larger importance on the home leg for each team. If the Slots can steal an away leg victory from the defending champions, they will be sitting in the driver's seat from day one.

 

Red River Women's Division II: Bay Area Ruby v. San Antonio Riveters:

After a successful season last year, in Division III, Bay Area Rugby is making the leap up into Division II play for 2019. Their first opponent in their new division are the San Antonio Riveters; a team which enjoyed the definition of a mixed bag last year, going 3-3-1. The Riveters have already kicked their seasons off, suffering a hefty loss to the Austin Valkyries D2, 42-17. They will look to get their season back on track on Saturday. The result of the game will be somewhat illuminating. While it may be too early in the season for this game to be the be all and end all of a team's season, it will certainly give a strong indication of how Bay Area will cope with their first season in Division II and whether or not it will San Antonio's first loss was a flash in the pan or a sign of things to come.

 

Northern California Men's Division II: Bay Area Baracus v. Sacramento Blackhawks: 

The start of a new season is usually a time for optimism and excitement, as teams look forward to what lies ahead of them in the upcoming schedule. Unfortunately, this weekend, there will be a more somber tone to the Sacramento Blackhawks and Bay Area Baracus opening match; as this will be the first time the Blackhawks take the pitch since the loss of their coach, Ben Parker. Parker was an influential part of rugby not only in Sacramento, but all throughout Northern California. His was a big part of his players' lives and they will undoubtedly be looking to honor him with a strong showing this weekend. Sacramento Blackhawks were one of the best teams in their competition last year, going 6-0-1 and finishing second on the ladder at the end of the regular season. Their one tie came to the eventual champions San Jose, in one of the most exciting games of the year, 46-46. They lost in the first round of the Northern California Playoffs to San Francisco Golden Gate D2. The Baracus, were not as competitive falling to 1-7 on the year. Saturday will prove to be a tough test for both teams as they enter 2019.