Women's Premier League 2016: Week 1 Recap

This weekend served as a first look into the eighth iteration of the Women’s Premier League (WPL), and all signs point to a very competitive season. In the Blue Conference, two-time defending champion Glendale overtook San Diego, 28-26, in the final minutes of play, while Oregon Rugby Sports Union’s defense subdued Berkeley in a 34-12 win. In the Red Conference, Twin Cities topped visiting Atlanta, 38-17, while New York posted the biggest point differential in a 48-0 win over D.C. Furies.

Every team broke in some WPL newcomers and leaned on veterans for leadership, and the game of the weekend in Glendale was no different. The Raptors saw players like flanker Avery Potter and Wisconsin alumna Justine Wypych prove very effective in their debuts, while San Diego benefitted from forward transfers like Matelina Maluia, Melissa Quiroz, and Eagles Molly Kinsella and Sam Pankey.

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The Glendale and San Diego backs scored two tries apiece in the first half, but the first of three Tia Blythe conversions gave the Surfers a 12-10 lead into the break. Maluia and Quiroz added third-quarter tries, which bookended a Glendale penalty. After 60 minutes, San Diego led, 26-13.

“We got into our pattern and were more tidy with the ball,” Glendale captain Sarah Chobot reflected on the turnaround. “The big thing was nobody backslid when we were down. We started to pick away [at the lead], slowly working on things. Then we caught a lucky break.”

Glendale scored three tries in the final quarter. The go-ahead points came in the final minutes, when Glendale flanker Joanna Kitlinski scooped up an errant Surfers pass for the try and win. It is a tough way to lose, but the Surfers picked up two bonus points in the standings.

In the Pacific Northwest, ORSU hosted 2015 runner-up Berkeley. A young All Blues side scored the first and final points of the game, but ORSU scored six tries in between. Berkeley got its tries after fly half Lauren Rhode put Ardia Kelker into space with a well-placed grubber and later through AIG Women’s Collegiate All-American Bulou Mataitoga. ORSU player-coach Beckett Royce pointed to the trio for exerting a ton of offensive pressure.

Led by stalwarts like flanker Rachel Johnson and full back Molly Luft, the ORSU defense stood up. Three first-half tries came from Hannah Summers, Te Awhina Ho Chee and Paris Hart, while Royce, Brett Zimmerman and Kaitlin Sigado scored in the second 40. Luft added two conversions, as well.

“I was really pleased with the opener,” Royce summarized. “There is still much to work on, but we did the basics well, worked really hard for each other and showed a lot of resolve on defense. It’s a great platform from which to launch the season’s campaign, and I think we’re off to a solid start. We have a lot of new, incoming talent and a few second-year players that are switching positions or being asked to take a step into starting roles, and I was extremely happy with all of their performances.”

Royce was particularly complimentary of Sigado, who “took the reins with her first start at 10 and did an impressive job, showing a lot of poise under the pressure of Berkeley’s defense,” the player-coach praised.

New York and D.C. kicked off the Red Conference action Saturday, and stifling temperatures in Maryland served as an additional opponent. The visitors were more successful turning their possession into points and sent five players across for tries: Jess Berry (2), Ally Dykes, Nicole Humphrey, Mary McCarthy, Ashley Nesby and Kristen Siano. McCarthy and Siano split the kicking duties.

New York head coach James English echoed Royce’s sentiments in that the season-opener looked like a season-opener: There are kinks to work out but a good platform for success has been set. New York followed its WPL win with another shutout against D.C.’s second side, a game that featured well-known athletes like Gio Cruz, Phaidra Knight, and Lisa Roselin.

The Twin Cities-versus-Atlanta game rounded out the weekend’s action, as the Harlequins traveled to Minnesota for the Sunday match. Atlanta took the first lead through a Laoise O’Driscoll penalty and remained within striking distance through 65 minutes. Amazons tries from Rachel Lentsch (2), Tupouahau Paea and Tiffany Gjestvang were answered by scores from Laketa Sutton and Lisa Gartner. Two O’Driscoll conversions, as well as one from Twin Cities’ Jacie Vonada, saw the scoreboard sit at 24-17 after 65 minutes.

“It was a windy day, so it was a tale of two halves for both teams in terms of what you could do,” Twin Cities assistant coach Kim O’Brien said. “In the first half, we had some opportunities to get it out to the wing when we were close to the try line, but got knocked out of bounds before dotting down. We couldn’t finish. We were going with the wind in the second half … and Sylvia [Braaten] had some nice kicks to keep us in their territory and keep pressure on them.”

With the outcome still in question, the Amazons surged ahead in the final 10 minutes of the match. Vonada converted her own score, and then loose forward Becca Brown, who impressed in her first WPL match, dotted down in the waning minutes. Vonada’s third conversion made it 38-17.

“Our scrum did a really great job. And on a windy day, we only missed two lineouts,” Atlanta coach Phil Thiel reviewed the day’s positives. “We had great line breaks and great support, just a few things to improve upon. The Amazons are very strong, disciplined and well drilled with good athletes, but we were right there with them.”

Atlanta got good performances out of players like center Monique Compito, Kimberly Knipe and O’Driscoll, although Thiel was pleased with the range of veterans and newcomers on the pitch. Twin Cities found inspiration in the hard-tackling Braaten, prop Mikayla Miller, who is fortifying the front row, Northern Iowa alumna Brown in her WPL debut, as well as flanker Rachel Maas and scrum half Lentsch.

“I was impressed with Atlanta, and I think they’ll be tough,” O’Brien said. “They have a new coaching staff so it’ll be interesting to see how they develop over the weeks, and we’ll see them in our last game of the season.”

This weekend sees D.C. Furies travel to Twin Cities, while New York hosts Atlanta. In the Blue Conference, San Diego heads to Berkeley, while ORSU welcomes Glendale.