In what might be the most important match in Northern California this weekend, the Sacramento Lions will travel to Santa Rosa to decide first place in their league, and a first-round bye for the playoffs. The Lions enter the match currently in first, but only by one bonus point, and will have to give it their all to beat a determined Santa Rosa squad which lost only by four to the Lions when the two teams played January 11th, where the Lions escaped with a 24-20 win.
Both teams enter the match with only one official league loss, with Santa Rosa’s at the hand of the Lions, and the Lions losing their sole game by two points in an upset to Fresno.
On paper there seems to be little to separate these two teams, with Santa Rosa scoring an average of 41 points per game, and the Lions averaging 40.7 points per game. Santa Rosa, however, has only allowed an average of 15.7 points per game, while the Lions have allowed 20 points per game.
“There is no way around the reality that we have a big challenge ahead of us this weekend,” said Lions team manager Aaron Frederick. “It’s not going to be pretty, and we will need a full team effort if we want to get this win on the road. It is no secret that Santa Rosa is a well-coached and organized team and their results affirm this. We know they have improved a great deal since we last played them. I believe that we can be successful, but we will need to play some our best rugby to win this game.”
The Lions have a lot of weapons offensively and are known for their aggressive style of play, which has been their Achilles heel, as the Lions have frequently this season found themselves in penalty trouble.
Fullback Peceli Rinakama is the Lions best offensive player and certainly the most exciting, and he is especially dangerous when counter attacking. 18-year-old flyhalf Pate Takiveikata has been in good form, and much will be expected of the young player this weekend. Scrumhalf Jerry Tavai, center Villiami Finau, and wing Sione Vaka have all contributed greatly to the Lions’ success this season.
In the forwards, the Lions have some young and powerful talent with Rob Kaihea and Mathew Koroi bringing a youthful surge all season offensively and defensively from the loose forward position. Veteran flankers Eddie Matakibau and Nemani Volavola bring experience and a level of physicality that is hard to match. Props Pun Laiatea and Ryan Steele have been working hard all season and are powerful players. Lions team captain, lock Joel Scott, has tallied nine tries in seven games this season.
“We have been working very hard this season to play good rugby and stay organized,” said Lions Head Coach Iferemie Tawake. “We have the right pieces to be successful and have been trying to put them together to be consistent. We did a good job last week of minimizing our penalty county, and we will have to be a disciplined team this weekend if we want to secure a win.”
Santa Rosa has some weapons, too. Scrumhalf Chris Willover has been in solid form, helping feed the ball to the likes of center Mike Rodriguez, who has provided plenty of firepower, and wing Illivasi Navia, who has been a try-scoring machine and put the league on notice when he posted six tries in a single game against SFGG back in February.
Alex Coursey and Tyson Cummings have been brilliant this year as lock/flanker hybrids, and Josh Inong provides a spark as a utility forward and has international experience with the Philippines National Team. No. 8 Robert Meeson has been playing lights out all season for Santa Rosa, and has been the anchor of a powerful and active forward pack that has taken pride in the effectiveness of their set pieces.
“A great facet of our game has keyed in on set piece play for the forwards,” said Meeson, a Santa Rosa native and former UC Davis stand-out. “We have had to reevaluate and focus on some basic skills… Playing good fundamental rugby is a key point for our squad for this weekend and the buildup to playoffs.”
When asked about the opposition this weekend, Meeson responded, “In regards to the tough nature of the matches, I think this is always going to be the case between two strong, well established clubs. As for preparation, we do not take our opponents lightly. Sacramento is the top team in the league and nothing can be taken for granted in the buildup for Saturday.”
Out of all the Northern California teams who have moved up to Division 1 this season, Santa Rosa has clearly been the most successful of the group in terms of keeping up with the competition. As a former national powerhouse in Division 2, Meeson explained that Santa Rosa is a club constantly striving for improvement and were eager to be successful at the next level.
“Once you’re making it to the sweet 16s as a second division club, moving up is paramount. Staying down sends a message of idleness to your team; we didn’t want that at Rosa,” explained Meeson. “We’re trying to build for something greater.”
In their first season in Division 1, the only thing that stands between Santa Rosa and first place in the league is the Sacramento Lions, who are just as hungry to secure this top spot. The Lions have been in Division 1 since they formed as a club in 2004, and have made the post season every year since. However, the Lions have frequently found themselves falling just short.
Tawake isn’t focusing on the pre-game hype, though. Instead, he takes the same approach for every game they play.
“Our goal is to play the best rugby we can and win games,” said Tawake. “We want to improve as a club and improve the standard of club rugby in Sacramento overall. Every Saturday is an opportunity to improve and make steps forward, this one is no different. Our goal stays the same.”