It’s hard to imagine a game getting any better than the Raleigh v Sacramento semifinal today during the women’s DII club championship. It came down to the final minutes of a heart-palpitating match, but the Venom held onto a 27-26 win against a determined and inspired Amazons squad. Given a few more minutes, who knows who would have been advancing to the final against Pittsburgh tomorrow.
“I’m drained,” Raleigh coach Marc Miles summarized. “That was an intense match. We were up 27-7 and we started thinking we had it. We let up and you could start to see it in the team. But Sacramento just kept pounding back at us to get back in it.”
“Pounding” is an understatement. As the teams lined up for the opening kickoff, the size mismatch was intimidating. It wasn’t just Sacramento’s front row or any individual – every player embodied the Amazonian body type.
“Our game plan heading into this match was to wear them out, pick up the pace, and use the kick again with the wind,” Miles said. “We watched them yesterday and by the 60th minute, they looked dead, and Portland didn’t run them as hard as we wanted to push them.”
Raleigh executed its game plan fairly well in the first half. After spending a few scary minutes deep in their end, flyhalf Tonya Fletcher – arguably the best #10 in the DII competition – sent some booming clearing kicks downfield, erasing 30 to 40, sometimes more, meters of Sacramento work.
One such kick and a subsequent penalty saw Raleigh on Sacramento’s 30 meter. The ball flowed out to the backs where fullback Amanda Street looped the corner to outpace the overloaded defense, 5-0.
Sacramento was slow to realize the same outside opportunities and relied on the connection between flyhalf Ofolangi Mailangi and inside center Diana Sela Langi. But between the two, it was a pretty mean punch that accounted for the Zons’ first try.
From a stolen scrum on Raleigh’s 40 meter, flanker Angela-Jane Tapaita Schaaf broke deep into the belly of the Raleigh defense. Street managed to drag the ballcarrier down but a penalty was awarded in the subsequent tackle area. No. 8 Angela Ve’evalu made one of many rumbling runs in which several Venom players were needed to drag her down. The ball then worked out to Mailangi, who got her shoulders past her defender, then Langi coming on at full pace. Nothing was going to stop her and she scored from 10 meters out. Siu Green hit the conversion for the 7-5 lead.
Those two scores typified the two teams’ attacking styles. Raleigh had tough forwards, but wasn’t where the team was going to break through. The Venom worked beautiful running lines with sure finishers in 7s Eagle Ryan Carlyle and Street, with Fletcher putting them into space with long–range kicks. The Amazons liked contact and kept the ball alive at all costs. They were quite effective in the offload, and spun off tacklers continually sucking the defense toward the ball. Had they used their width a little more, then it might have been a different outcome.
The next try saw Raleigh establish a lead that they wouldn’t relinquish for the rest of the match, and it was an odd one. Fletcher sent an incredibly long kick that rolled to within meters of the try line. Sacramento recovered it with chasers on their tail, but the receiver simply dove on the ball and then waited for non-existent support to ruck over her. Instead, Carlyle stepped over the Amazon and dotted it down over the line for the try, 12-7.
Another Fletcher kick set up Laketa Sutton’s try. The back three fielded the ball cleanly but sent a short kick right into the hands of the chasing Venom players. Sacramento didn’t retreat and align quick enough and Raleigh took advantage for another try around the corner, 17-7.
Fletcher put the team in scoring position once again when a kick set up a five-meter lineout to Sacramento in their own end. The throw-in didn’t go five and Raleigh eventually found itself with an attacking scrum on the five meter. No. 8 Amanda Cox picked strongside and dotted down for the 22-7 lead.
During the half, the Amazons regrouped.
“They laughed a little at halftime,” Sacramento coach Mary Swanstrom said of the turn-around. “This team plays better when they’re happy and enjoying each other. But they were also pissed – not at each other but at themselves, at the game and not the other team.”
Even though Swanstrom wasn’t pleased with the level of aggression her players exerted in the first half, she was happy that play hadn’t degraded.
“The girls get frustrated,” Swanstrom said. “Refs think we hit hard because we’re strong, and because of that, we get called quicker than most people. Sometimes we get our heads down when we’ve been called for something we don’t understand or feel isn’t right, and people will stop playing.”
But the opposite happened today. The Zons held Raleigh to one try, while they rallied with three.
Raleigh prop Jamie Burke took a quick tap penalty from five meters out to go up 27-7.
“They did the same thing yesterday,” Miles reflected on the impending Amazons’ comeback. “They came out hard in the second half and kept pushing and pushing, and that’s what they did today.”
The Amazons’ size finally started to wear Raleigh out as players fell off tackles and allowed Sacramento to keep the ball moving through the forwards. Ve’evalu set up Ainise Otuhiva’s try after barreling through the heart of the defense and spinning off defenders. The wing was all alone after defenders flocked to the eightman’s side and scored easily. Green converted, 27-14.
Ve’evalu set up the next try in the same manner, often running laterally to take on the backs – although Carlyle did an excellent job of tackling ankles, but not after regrouping from a monster fend. The final score came with about 10 minutes left in the game, as Mailangi and Langi teamed up once again for a tight pop out of contact and full head of steam meters from the try line.
“With a team that big, we knew we were going to lucky with the one-on-one tackling,” Miles said. “It was going to take a team effort in order to regroup so we could get set again. I was really impressed with our tackling in the first half but in the second half we started to slip and they started gaining 10-15 meters at a time.”
But in the end, Raleigh’s fitness held true and they were able to do enough to keep Sacramento out of the try zone in the waning minutes. They played smart rugby, taking punches around the breakdowns and off Fletcher. They simply maintained possession and ran down the clock, holding onto a one-point lead.
One would expect Raleigh to be emotionally exhausted after a game like that, but Raleigh coach Vernetta Alston has faith in her players.
“We have a lot of players who have been here before and have the mental toughness to know what it takes to play three games at nationals or any other tournament,” Alston said. “So if they can step up as leaders, we’ll be ready for tomorrow. We have a team full of athletes who know how to take care of themselves.”
Despite the loss, Swanstrom was very pleased with her team’s gritty performance.
“During our last few games, which were the only ones in which we had strong competition, we were surprised in the first, because we weren’t ready for the competition,” Swanstrom said. “Once they learned what was going on, they came together as a team. To me, that says they have tons of potential as a team, that when they’re given adversity, they a few minutes to learn what’s going on, take it in and learn from it.”
It was one of the hardest-hitting, fastest-paced games of the tournament, and here’s hoping it’s a precursor to another barn burner of a game in tomorrow’s final between Raleigh and Pittsburgh.