The inaugural Elite Cup Final, set for Infinity Park in Glendale, Colo. Saturday at 6pm, has a very Super-League feel to it. Perhaps that’s because it’s a rematch of the 2009 and 2011 Super League Finals, in both of which San Francisco Golden Gate beat Life in a competitive contest.
In fact, the last time SFGG and Life met was at the 2011 Final in Marietta, Ga., with SFGG winning 20-15.
Both sides still feature plenty of guys who would have played in that contest – Blake Bradford, Kris Headlee, Brendan Thomson, Benny Mateialona, Tui Osborne, Aza McMaster, James Isaacson and Zach Simkins for Life, and Danny LaPrevotte, John Thomas, Mose Timoteo, Volney Rouse, Mile Pulu, Jeff Van Meter, Samisoni Pone, Tevita Okusi, Jacob Nelson, Hector Quiles, Paula Fukofuka and Bruce Thomas for SFGG.
Since then, both teams have still been playing the same kinds of rugby they're known for.
“We’re renowned for being a pre-shaped, well drilled, well organized, very systematic team. And they’re the very unpredictable West Coast, sort of Polynesian brand, throw it around, great in broken play and very unpredictable,” said Life player/coach James Isaacson.
“They’ve cut us with their unpredictability, especially a few key individuals they have. They’ve gotten a few quick tries and we’ve struggled to come back from that. And that’s been the tale of the two games, really.”
SFGG led Life 17-9 at halftime in 2011, which left the Running Eagles chasing tries to get back in the game. This time, Isaacson wants to see his team going for touch downs from the jump, not necessarily planning on settling for penalties.
“I’ve let the guys generate their own structure, but I want to break out of that structure and play a little bit more like [SFGG],” he said. “I think we’ve got more individuals who suit that type of play, maybe, and maybe that will surprise them.”
Two of the guys who have that creative big-play ability are centers Benny Mateialona and Tui Osborne. They’ve been playing together for years, but this season, the addition of the guy just inside them has allowed them more space to run than before.
“The key difference is the addition of AJ MacGinty at 10. Ever since I’ve been with the side we’ve struggled to have a 10 that can distribute, not only at the line, but also fix the inside defense so the defending backline don’t just drift off the 10 and choke the rest of the backline,” said Issacson.
“So we have a 10 that can really get our forwards into the game, which is good because we have a good pack of running forwards, and also release the backline without letting the opposition defense just drift onto them and not really offer a threat himself. AJ fits the bill there, and he’s been a key player for us all year.”
For Golden Gate, the focus this weekend will just have to be on capitalizing on opportunities when the time’s right.
“We know we’re in a good fight. They are well structured, they do things well, the basics well. We’ve got a good game plan,” said SFGG coach Grant Wells.
“We like our style of play, and we’ll get opportunities. We know that, we’ve just got to be on time in taking those opportunities. Need guys not to use too much energy in moving up the field. We know what we need to do to overcome these guys.”
Another key battleground in Glendale will be the set pieces, where the Running Eagles believe they have an edge.
“To be honest, a trait of West Coast rugby in general, and I don’t want this to sound disrespectful, but they very much see the set piece as a restart. They don’t see it as as much of a weapon as we do here on the East,” said Isaacson.
“That’s probably generated by the conditions, really. When it’s as wet and rainy as it is over here, you don’t want to be throwing the ball around. Consequently, on the West Coast where it’s nice and dry and sunny and there’s nice hard grounds, you just need to get the ball and play it and do the damage elsewhere. So the emphasis is naturally taken away from the set piece.”
Life’s scrum has been very good all year, as has its lineout.
“They are big, but they’re not technically as good as we are, and I’ve seen that as area as a little bit of an area that we can target,” said Isaacson of SFGG's forwards. “Our scrum has gone well all year against all sides on the East Coast. I’m very happy with it.”
Wells, too, isn’t sweating his team’s ability to win ball in the set pieces, even with hooker Chris Biller out of the lineup. Former Cal All American Neil Barrett will spell Biller, as he has throughout the season.
“I think our lineout’s been one of our strongest points this year. We’ve got some good jumpers,” said Wells. “Neil’s been throwing well in training, and when he’s come on he’s done well. We’ve worked a lot on our scrum over the last couple of weeks. We’ve made a few adjustments. So we feel pretty confident at set piece time, for sure.”
As does any game, this one will likely come down to tackles. In that area, it's youth versus experience. SFGG's back row, anchored by LaPrevotte, has been in this game time and time again. Life's back row, with recent college graduates Paul Bester and Benji Goff on the flanks, hasn't. Bester and Goff are athletically gifted and big, strong and fast enough to do the job, but for 80 minutes? Tackling guys like Fukofuka and a girthy Pulu can wear a defense down.