by Jackie Finlan
Photo: USA Rugby
Life West won the DII club national championship 66-20 over 2015 titleholder Wisconsin today at Glendale’s Infinity Park. The trophy is a mighty achievement for the NorCal side in its first official season, but the outcome is unsurprising considering Life West’s consistently dominant performance this spring.
The trouble started right from the kickoffs. Flanker Mele Taumoefolau was a beast in the return and necessitated gang tackles to stop her forward momentum. Scrumhalf Nikki Kenyon kept that ball moving away from the contact point, as did flyhalf Megan Foster, who on more than one occasion angled through the line herself. Wisconsin lost its flyhalf, Elisa Becker, during Friday’s captain run, and that field presence is irreplaceable.
The Gladiatrix shone in open play. Ballcarriers were well supported and looking for that offload, confident in their timed passes, and powerful enough to fend or spin out of contact to keep the ball in play. After that first missed tackle, the fast phases followed, and Life West was nearly impossible to stop.
The scoreboard lit up one minute into the match as inside center Fina Toetu’u went on the first of several exciting runs. A slipped tackle on the sideline saw wing Angelina Lomu score the first of her three tries. Prop Catie Benson accounted for the following two tries, capitalizing on breakaways from No. 8 Jennifer Sever and fullback Cameo Motley. Benson later scored a breakaway try of her own, outpacing the pursuing defenders for close to 70 meters.
Wisconsin got on the board approximately 15 minutes in when a missed switch deep in Life West’s end hit the ground. Outside center Ashley Shaw was on the case, scooped up the ball and dashed in for the score. No. 8 Grace Hovde added the conversion for the 17-7 scoreline. Shaw was a source of inspiration all game. Even though the Wisconsin backline was overmatched, Shaw was unintimidated and kept things interesting. She set up the game’s final try, splitting an over-eager defense and timing the pass to the fastest player on the pitch, wing Felicia Carlson.
Wisconsin’s scrum was a source of pride and the team’s best attacking platform. Hovde and scrumhalf Kristine Peterson worked well around the base, but the team couldn’t retain possession long enough or often enough to build. Life West lock and co-captain Megan Pinson, who might as well be dubbed “The Disruptor,” nullified Wisconsin’s lineout possession. The jumper regularly stole Wisconsin’s throw-ins and was also key in forcing errors at the breakdown. Sever and Benson also did good work in tight.
Life West led Wisconsin 44-7 at the half, as Lomu (2), Benson (3), Foster, Motley and Pinson all scored. Foster handled the extras as well, and her management of the high-paced offense afforded the MVP nod.
Despite the deficit, Wisconsin was not extinguished and got into scoring position after Shaw booted the ball down-pitch. Motley pressured the pick-up and won her side the scrum, but more possession changes followed. Finally hooker Emily Mastrandrea pierced the one channel for the dive-over try, 44-12.
And then Life West answered with four tries from Lomu, Sever (2) and Kenyon. They were all beautiful displays of fast, creative phase play involving equally talented teammates.
Wisconsin had a couple of more chances for points, but one knock-on in the finishing pass across the tryline and another quick-tap try negated for not going through the mark saw those opportunities lost. With time running out, Hovde kicked a penalty, 66-15.
Carlson scored the game’s final points, a try that evolved with 14 players on the pitch, 66-20.
Thoughts of next year immediately arise. Life West competed in Division II because it’s the only senior club league in the northern California region, and the Gladiatrix needed to, in its first season, understand where they fit into the national landscape. Life West is far and away the best team in DII and would drive DI in the future. But for now, it’s time to enjoy a well deserved national championship.