On a sweltering Southern California day, the Santa Monica Dolphins hosted the Denver Barbarians in Round 3 of the Pacific Rugby Premiership. The hosts were coming off a solid win over Olympic Club while the guests were surely looking to recover from a loss to SFGG that literally slipped through their hands. On this day, the Dolphins would come away with a surprisingly resounding 45-13 victory.
Despite the result, the day started in ominous fashion as, before the opening whistle, Dolphins starting flyhalf Harry Bennett went down to injury. Already extremely depleted in the backline, Santa Monica turned to veteran Loa Milford as an emergency fill-in.
Said Santa Monica Head Coach Greg Commins, “It’s just one of those weeks where we knew we were up against it in the backs due to injury. We had our starting line-up intact but could ill-afford to have anybody go down. When Harry got injured, I was literally looking around to see how we could replace him as I didn’t have a projected reserve at center. Thankfully, Loa showed up to the pitch ready to answer the call. I can’t say enough what he has meant to this club over the past five years…with his professionalism, skill, and versatility. We are truly blessed to have a former international who can sub-in at a moment’s notice.”
The ever humble but jocular Milford responded, “I brought my boots just in case something happened. Harry went down about 15 minutes before kick-off. I got the call. It’s nothing new to me. I actually had 5 more minutes than I normally need to get warmed-up.”
Things got even more tense for the Dolphins after the kick-off as, at the 2 minute mark, Ken Aseme was penalized for hands-in the ruck inside the defensive 22. Barbos fullback Maximo De Achaval easily slotted the penalty to give the visitors an early 0-3 lead.
On the ensuing kick-off, Denver were penalized at the breakdown for leaving their feet, thus giving Santa Monica an attacking line-out inside the attacking zone. The Dolphins drove down to the try line but the Denver defense was stout – holding the hosts at bay and ultimately getting a scrum via a knock-on.
A somewhat strange coupling of events followed as, on successive passages of play, Santa Monica were penalized, Denver failed to find touch, Santa Monica scrumhalf Charlie Purdon returned the kick, Denver deflected the ball, and Santa Monica were rewarded with a lineout deep in the attacking zone. Though failing to score on the first attempt and then getting held-up in goal on the second one, the Dolphins finally cracked the Barbos line on the third try. From a scrum on the 5-meter line near the left sideline, 8-man Ken Aseme picked up from the base and ran toward the posts, he offloaded to a crashing Milford, who then found scrumhalf Purdon looping around for a sneaky try near the posts. Lesgrougues easily hit the extras. 7-3 Santa Monica.
Denver immediately responded on the kick-off, pinning the Dolphins inside their own 22 and then getting a scrum on the attacking 5-meter. Not to be outdone, Santa Monica displayed some strong goal line defense of their own and eventually turned Denver over in the tackle and then cleared their line.
After a few sequences of interplay where the ball changed possession between the 22s, Denver threw a forward pass at midfield. From the scrum, Aseme popped to Purdon moving toward the right side, Purdon chipped over the first line of defense and a hard-charging fullback Alistair Ross collected the bounce and fed flanker Philip Osbourne who touched down near the 15 meter hash. Lesgourgues failed to convert. 12-3 Santa Monica.
Good fortune favored the green and black on the next kick-off. The forwards set up a platform near the 10 meter line for Lesgourgues to kick deep but the flyhalf’s attempt was charged down by Denver’s lock. The ball took a fortuitous bounce, landing right into the arms of center Milford, who was already advancing on the kick. Already past the first line of defense, the former Samoa international drew the opposing center, offloaded to Ross, who drew his opposing fullback and offloaded to winger Mitch Raisch. Raisch took it the final 10 meters and scored in virtually the same spot as Osbourne. Again, Lesgourgues missed the conversion. 17-3 Santa Monica.
Denver answered back at the 39 minute mark with a kick-for-points from 30 meters out and in front of the posts. Santa Monica spent a long period of time on defense and, though they defended well, ultimately conceded a penalty for not rolling away in the tackle. 17-6 Santa Monica at the half.
The second half started with promise as, from the kick, Purdon cleared his 22 and found touch near midfield. Denver missed their lineout and Santa Monica hooker Philip Lydeard toed the ball through. He gave chase but ultimately knocked on at the 5-meter on an attempted pick-up. On the following scrum, the Dolphins secured a tighthead on an outstanding drive from Lydeard and props Chris Baumann and Rob Cleere. 8-man Aseme kept the drive going before picking up from 2 meters out and diving over for the score. Fullback Ross substituted in for Lesgourgues as kicker and handled the extras. 24-6 Santa Monica.
The Dolphins scored again after a helter-skelter 3 minute passage of play that saw the ball change possession multiple times. On the telling interchange, from open play Barbos flyhalf Ata Malifa put his hooker through a gap in the midfield. The ball then got out to wing Elliott White-Herzog, who was streaking down the right sideline. Fullback Ross boxed White-Herzog in against the sideline, forcing him to pass back inside to the replacement scrumhalf. Santa Monica lock Zac Winter did an outstanding job of holding the ball up in the tackle and forced a turnover. Aseme picked up from the base of the ruck and popped to Lydeard, who found a crease near the fringe. Malifa chased down the tackle, but not before Lydeard offloaded to lock James Lowrey. The “other” former Samoa international broke a tackle, steamed down the left sideline, and offloaded back inside to Aseme. From the ensuing tackle and ruck, Purdon sniped across the field and found flanker Pat Roberts in the centers. Roberts straight-armed his tackler and offloaded back inside to Purdon, who ran in under the posts. Ross was true again with the conversion. 31-6 Santa Monica.
At the 60 minute mark, Commins made wholesale substitutions. Scrumhalf Danny Carpio replaced Lesgourgues and pushed Purdon out to the pivot. Prop Epi Kalemani came on for hooker Philip Lydeard and pushed Baumann into the middle of the front row. Flanker Jabari Zuberi replaced Philip Osbourne.
From the restart, Purdon kicked deep and into touch on the Barbos’ side of the field. Denver again failed to connect on the lineout and after a series of fits and restarts, Lowrey crashed over from a driving maul with Kalemani and Roberts in tow. Ross for two more; 38-6 Santa Monica.
“I was glad to see James rewarded for all his hardwork on the day,” said Commins. “His deck-work was simply exemplary and he just kept pushing the boys forward. He and Ken…really, the entire pack…showed up today. We certainly needed and got it from them. Also, that try doesn’t happen if we don’t win the tighthead on the previous scrum. Great job by Epi to come on and immediately make his presence felt.”
Denver would score their only try of the day on the following kick-off. Santa Monica failed to cleanly field the kick and then were penalized for being offside. Denver went from the lineout and crashed the ball at the midfield. The Dolphins’ defense was slow to cover the fringe and allowed the Barbos scrumhalf to slide around the ruck and touch down. De Achaval hit the extras. 38-13 Santa Monica.
The Dolphins seemed to have closed out the scoring against the run of play. From the kick-off, Denver hit the ball up in the midfield through several phases. De Achaval found a crease on the right side, hit the gap and offloaded to his replacement center, who then attempted to connect with White-Herzog; however, a sneaky Charlie Purdon slid into the passing lane, intercepted the ball, and easily ran it in from 50 meters out. Unfortunately for the 9-would-be-10, he apparently didn’t cleanly field the intercept and was called for a knock-on.
The final try did eventually come on a classic Ali Ross maneuver. From a Santa Monica scrum at midfield, Roberts (now playing 8-man), popped to scrumhalf Carpio, who connected with Ross along the right sideline. The fullback posted his defender up, broke the tackle, tightrope walked the touch line, and put in a perfectly placed grubber to winger Raisch. Raisch did the rest as he sprinted in under the posts. Center Shawn Lee got in on the scoring by converting the try. 45-13 Santa Monica.
Commented Coach Commins: “Coming out of last week’s match, where we got to see Denver play SFGG, we knew we had a tall task in front of us. We knew they had size advantage over us and that we had to play a quick game. We did that successfully, had some breaks go our way early-on, and kept pressing forward. The score line flatters us a bit too much in that Denver were a few hops and passes away from it being a drastically different game. We have a lot to work on but I’m proud of the effort that everyone put in today. I give a huge amount of credit to Loa and Charlie for picking up the slack where Harry’s injury was concerned. I honestly don’t know where we would’ve been had it not been for Loa. Also to the locks – Zac and James – for their tireless workrate.
“We still have a lot of work to do, a lot of growing, but every step forward is a step in the right direction.”
Article by Dominic Riebli | Originally published at santamonicarugby.com
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