Old Puget Sound Beach secured the second playoff spot in the Super League’s West division with a 44-31 road victory over Denver Barbarians at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park. In a match featuring three lead changes in the first half, a tenacious Beach defense denied the Barbos points at critical junctures when they were in close, and the traveler’s backline produced seven tries, each movement begun within their own half.
Denver scored early, forcing turnover ball at Beach’s 22 meter line then their trademark maul work brought the men in green to OPSB’s five meter line before tighthead Josh Masek bulled over goal for the try converted by Max De Achaval: 7-0 at three minutes.
But Beach roared right back at the re-start, displaying a willingness to keep ball in hand, running out of their 22 as wing Rob Fitzpatrick gained an overlap just past his ten meter line and stepped inside a pair of defenders, dummied a third, and scooted 55 meters to try in the corner, using his high-profile teammate, Pate Tuilvuka, as a useful decoy. Conversion by fullback Evan Haigh knotted the scores.
OPSB got their first lead by using their forwards and centers to run onto the ball and push Denver back. It was smart, basic rugby and led to a hands-out move to wing Filimoni Botitu, who sidestepped his way down the sideline. The wing was ankle-tapped near the goalline but slid over for the try in the corner. OPSB led 12-7 in the 11th minute.
Denver demonstrated faith in their forwards as they elected to kick for touch and a lineout when awarded a penalty at the 22 meter line. Barbos pack controlled the throw-in 10 meters out, crabbed to the center of the pitch with precision mauling, and when OPSB were pinged for handling in the loose five meters out, No. 8 Tom Pasque quick-tapped the penalty and stole over goal for a De Achaval-converted try that put the Barbarians back on top 14-12 at 19 minutes.
A series of pick-and-goes by the Beach forwards, augmented by sniping jags by their scrumhalf, saw the visitors moving into Denver territory. They got a penalty for their efforts but Haigh missed a makeable shot.
Denver worked their way back, and while they were shoved off their own scrum ball five meters from the OPSB line, they kept up the pressure and eventually mauled the ball over from short range. Flanker Garrett Peterson was the guy with the ball at the bottom of the pile. De Achaval’s kick made it 21-12 Denver.
But two big players turned the tide for Beach. Haigh opted for goal on a long-range penalty attempt. His kick was short but a charging OPSB player forced de Achaval to kick down his left wing – straight to Botitu. The OPSB winger beat seven Denver players, and just as we was about to be lined up by a tackler, popped to Haigh, who had been in support all the way. Easy touchdown for the fullback and an even easier conversion. That made it 19-21. Moments later, after the Seattle club had finally attempted their first clearance kick to get out of their own 22, OPSB counter-rucked Denver off the ball and sent it through the hands to Botitu. The winger put on another sidestep and was gone, 80 meters to paydirt and a 24-21 lead for Beach.
It was a huge turning point for the visitors as they seemed to have found the right combination of conservative play in their own 22 and adventurous attacking flair. None of it was fancy – a good scrum, running onto the ball to crash at pace, and hands out to the wing, but it worked.
OPSB extended their lead when their lock broke free from congestion at his own ten meter line (again running full pace onto a scrumhalf pass) and hustled 40 meters to the Denver 22 before being hauled down. OPSB recycled quickly and sent it to the backs, where Tuilevuka thundered through a hole and kept it to go into the corner. That made it 29-21.
Denver pushed hard to get back in it, but could not quite breach the line. A run to the corner was pushed into touch. A lineout five meters out flubbed. An attack through the backs in front of the posts ended with a dropped ball.
In the end, Botitu made a final statement, taking an iffy pass, outfoxing Ben Haapapuro on the wing, and touching down in the corner to make it 34-21.
Denver weren’t done yet as they got on the attack, pouring into OPSB territory and setting up by the 22. De Achaval then scooched a grubber into goal and center Christian Sarmento was able to corral the squibbly pill for a de Achaval-converted goal and a score of 34-28 in the 65th minute.
Denver worked their pods well and patiently, slipping and jabbing, streaming back into Beach territory until they were awarded a penalty ten meters from the visitor’s line. Flanker Logan Collins quick-tapped and almost made it to the line, and from that ruck the Denver hooker just reached over to score. 34-33 with the hourglass emptying.
Barbarians pressured well and looked to do the business as they brought play inside Beach’s 22. OPSB’s old bugaboo, penalties, started to hurt them again. But Denver passed up an opportunity to kick for points and the lead, and kicked to the corner instead. But a poorly orchestrated scissor move saw the ball dropped and Tuilevuka kicked clear.
OPSB tried to kill time with a series of pick-and-goes up the middle, but those seconds had to be ticking away slowly.
And then just as it seemed the Seattle team wanted to wind it all down, the backs called for the ball, broke through yet another Denver hole in the midfield, and passed back inside to a streaking Ryan Bishop, in as a sub at scrumhalf, for the try that put it all away. 41-33
Denver had chances to take the lead late, but made mistakes in the red zone and were never able to recreate the glory of that first mauling try. Old Puget Sound, meanwhile, rode a sterling effort from their tight five and used hard running to create space for their speed men. It worked well enough, enough to put them into the playoffs.
Denver Barbarians 33
Tries: Masek, Pasque, Peterson, Sarmento, Other
Convs: De Achaval 4
Old Puget Sound Beach 41
Tries: Fitzpatrick, Botitu (3), Haigh, Tuilevuka, Bishop
Convs: Haigh (3)
Officials: B. Zapp, T. Coburn, J. Zevin