Defending Northern California DII club Santa Rosa almost upset the Sacramento Lions Saturday in a hard-nosed 25-21 match.
This Northern California DI league opened up for business this past weekend and the Santa Rosa v Sacramento game was the pick of the group.
The game came down to the wire as the Lions took an early lead which they carried throughout the entire game. Santa Rosa staged a two-try comeback in the final ten minutes to bring them within four points, getting within a try when Sacramento’s scrum buckled, leading to a penalty try.
Under pressure when packing down, the Lions almost gave up another penalty try right at the end of the game, but were able to hold on.
“Santa Rosa has always been known as a strong team in Northern California as they demonstrated today with this very close game,” said Lions team manager Aaron Frederick. “We have played them the last few years in pre-season games and they have gotten the best of us on more than once occasion. We knew they were not a team that we could to take lightly.”
“We had some tackling difficulties against them,” said Santa Rosa Head Coach Rick Humm. “Their forwards are very big and when they got moving forward they were tough to bring down. They did a better job of handling the contact early, but we were more dynamic in the second half, and we did scrum quite well.”
The Lions started strong with some electric offense and wide open play. In his A-side debut, Lions wing Siaosi Heleta exploited an overlap and found the tryline in the 6th minute. Lions fullback Peceli Rinakama added two points with the conversion kick, and the Lions took an early 7-0 lead.
Santa Rosa seemed a bit shell-shocked, while the Lions flashy passes got them moving again. Loose forwards Nemani Volavola and Eddie Matakibau connected on a nice scissor pass and Volavola offloaded to lock Joel Scott and he barreled right over his tackler to dive over, but just as he did a Santa Rosa defender managed to knock the ball loose, saving a try.
The Lions lock redeemed himself a few minutes later as the Lions drove downfield once more. The Lions again pushed near the try zone, and Santa Rosa’s defense continued to stymie the Lions pick-and-jam efforts. Rinakama spun the ball to the Scott who caught it at pace and drove over. The conversion kick was missed and the Lions took a 12-0 lead, but Rinakama later added a penalty kick, extending the lead 15-0.
After the first two tries, the teams battled back and forth as both Santa Rosa and Sacramento exhibited strong defensive play, and saw a number of offensive drives hindered by penalties at the breakdown. Both teams aggressive breakdown play led to multiple penalties for holding on, diving over, or not releasing the tackler. One area where Santa Rosa clearly had the upper hand over the Lions was in the scrum. Santa Rosa continued to overpower the Lions scrum which eventually led to a penalty try for Santa Rosa in the 37th minute giving the team their first five points of the half.
“We weren’t playing the game that we planned and worked on. One of our strengths is when we spin the ball wide but we didn’t move the ball out there as much as we should have,” said Lions Head Coach Iferemie Tawake. “We also missed a lot of our lineouts.”
The second half got off to the same start as the first, with the Lions’ improved ball movement putting Santa Rosa under pressure. Joeli Tikoisuva went wide for a try in the 44th minute. Tikoisuva is a high-school All-American who demonstrated that he is quite capable of playing high-level rugby and should continue to turn some heads for the Lions this season.
“Our scrum, lineouts and rucking went well once we were able to move the ball around better,” said Tawake. “There were some good moments in this game, but we still have much to work on if we want to stay competitive throughout the season.”
The Lions got another try from prop Ryan Steele in the 60th minute to make it 25-7. Steele is also a new addition to the Lions this season and previously played rugby league overseas in Wales. Steele’s try would be the last scoring play for the Lions, who looked like they had the game in the bag. Santa Rosa, however, proved they would not go down without a fight and mounted a last-minute comeback. Santa Rosa showed why the deserved to compete in DI, and finished the game with two more tries and successful conversion kicks for both bring the score close, 25-21.
But a final push from Santa Rosa ended with a penalty against them. Rinakama booted the ball into touch, and referee Phil Akroyd blew the final whistle.
For Santa Rosa it was a frustrating, but encouraging game. Greg Greg Hildebrand scored two tries for Rosa and Julian Howsepian was also impressive on the day. With the wine harvest in the players are able to commit more to training, and Humm said he expects more from them as the season progresses.
“We shows we can compete in this league, and that’s very encouraging,” Humm said. “Our big takeaway from this was that there’s not a world of difference between DI and DII, at least for us.”
The Sacramento Lions chose lock Matthew Koroi as this week’s Man of the Match. The young lock is in his first season with the Lions after graduating from playing with the Sacramento Islanders high school team last season, and has brought a level of physicality both offensively and defensively which has impressed his teammates and coaches.
"We definitely played better than the first time we played them in the preseason,” said Tawake. “We’ll be working on our penalties and sticking to the game plan for our game against the Razorbacks next week.”
Also this weekend, the East Palo Alto Bulldogs beat SFGG’s DI side 40-15, San Jose beat Diablo, and the EPA Razorbacks got by Fresno 37-10.
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