Written by: Jackie Finlan
The Women’s Premier League (WPL) launched into the 2023 season on April 15, kicking off a new era in which the competition positions itself for professionalization. The new schedule is 12 rounds long with league-wide byes and a summer break, culminating in October with a stand-alone national championship.
Six of seven teams were in motion last weekend (Twin Cities had the bye) and two of those games were decided by a conversion. San Francisco was home to the WPL Game of the Week between reigning national champion Berkeley and Life West.
“The Battle of the Bay is always an exciting rugby weekend no matter where it falls in the season, so to have it as the season opener had both sides and spectators buzzing,” Life West assistant coach Finnley Parsons set the tone. “I’d wager that’ll be one of the best matched displays of rugby in this first half of the season.”
The first half was a try-trading affair. Berkeley flyhalf Olivia Bernadel-Huey scored and converted, and Life West responded through prop Molly Shamieh. All Blues flanker Ari Jurkowski dotted down and Gladiatrix wing Christina Opeti matched. Sierra Watkins’ try and Bernadel-Huey’s extras put the All Blues up 19-10 into the break.
“We knew the All Blues were going to bring the heat coming off their national championship last year and that we would have to step up to meet the challenge,” Parsons commended the opposition. “The All Blues are definitely in a great position at the start of the season and should be top contenders throughout. They are well coached, have really great connection and are executing nice plays.”
Wing Elena Clark and No. 8 Tonya Wessman made it a three-try lead (29-10) after 60 minutes, and then Life West surged in the final quarter. Siale Alatini and Jett Hayward (2) dotted down, and a Rachel Pauu conversion pulled Life West to within two, 29-27. The final eight minutes of the match were intense, but Berkeley held on for the win. Life West gets two bonus points for tries and close loss.
“It is good to get a bonus-point win against a perennial powerhouse like Life West,” Berkeley head coach Hannah Stolba reflected. “It was good to get a game in to assess where we are. It was great to see some new folks really shine.”
Stolba called out newcomers Jurkowski and Watkins for leading on attack and playing well off of new teammates. The halfback pairing of Shelby Lin and Bernadel-Huey was also solid.
“We are really proud of the physicality and style of play our side brought the entirety of the game,” Parsons added. “They trusted the game plan and trusted each other, and we are proud of the grit they displayed. We’re eager to get back to training this week and continue to develop together. We have an exciting combination of veterans who understand how we want to play that we trust immensely in leading a large group of powerful rugby players who are new to our program. It’s going to be a great WPL season.”
Life West travels to New York in round two, while Berkeley hosts the Colorado Gray Wolves. That duo – New York and Colorado – also produced a two-point decision in Glendale, Colo., last weekend. It was a rematch of the 2022 3rd place game, and New York pushed a fast, physical first half at Infinity Park.
“It was pretty blustery early in the game and they had the wind at their back and played a lot of territory to keep us pinned in our half a fair amount,” said Colorado Gray Wolves assistant coach Jamie Burke, who works alongside head coach Mose Timoteo. “And we didn’t execute getting out of our half effectively.”
New York scrumhalf Sarah Minahan scored the half’s only try, and center Allysa O’Neill added a conversion and penalty for a 10-0 halftime lead.
“For the second half, we focused on managing the pace of the game,” Fa’ae’e explained. “Securing our rucks and taking a second to set up our options. When we played our shape, we created more continuity.”
Colorado settled down in the second half and started putting some phases together. Wing Nichole Wanamaker scored approximately five minutes after the break, 10-5, and then New York restored the point differential with a Shamira Robles at 65 minutes, 15-5.
In the final 10 minutes of play, the Gray Wolves sped up their game play and were a little more intentional with their attack, building enough momentum for reserve Gianna Solomon to score. Flyhalf Hannah Tennant converted, 15-12.
Minutes later, flanker Carson Hann – a standout who’s rising to the call of vice captain – dotted down the go-ahead try, 17-15. The only lead change of the game occurred with 90 seconds to play, and Colorado held on for the win.
“I think it allows the team to know what it’s made of when their backs are against the wall,” Burke said of the early test’s impact. “That’s a lesson that’s a hard one to learn earlier in the season – to develop some of that skill set, to develop some of that mental fortitude so that you’re not having to learn that lesson in a national championship or semifinal game. You know that you’ve got it in you.”
New York doesn’t return home empty handed. It received a bonus point for the close loss.
“We created a lot of opportunities by getting behind the defense. Our focus this week will be on our support finishing,” Fa’ae’e closed. “Tough loss, as we dominated the majority of the game. It’s only game 1, so we get to keep building and get some consistency.”
Rounding out the Saturday, Beantown and Chicago North Shore met at the Chicago Blaze’s pitch in Lemont, Ill. The visitors posted a 62-0 victory.
“It was great to see our attack and defense structures in action for a full 80,” enthused Kitt Wagner Ruiz, who is co-head coach alongside Ollie Engelhart. “All 23 of the players that traveled to Chicago played and made an impact.”
Outside center Amanda Schweitzer co-captained the team alongside prop Akweley Okine and notched 22 points on two tries and six conversions.
“It was Amanda Schweitzer’s birthday and she has 22 points on the day,” Wagner praised the leader. “She was asked to play 10 for a bit because our starting 10 pulled her hamstring three minutes into the match.”
Wagner Ruiz also lauded Hallie Taufoou, a new addition who was playing in her first match since the Rugby World Cup. Wagner Ruiz noted the Eagle’s impact on the width of attack and the forward’s two tries.
No. 8 Yeja Dunn, lock Ric Jarrell, reserve Megan Neyen, flanker Claire Phelan, prop Sarah Romano and wing Emma Santosuosso also scored tries in the victory. Meanwhile, Chicago North Shore introduced nine players to the WPL and got leading performances out of Kadie Sanford, Katie LaMont, Nicole Fisch and Gray Wolves transfer Jess Dombrowski. North Shore will look for improvement against Twin Cities at SeatGeek Stadium in week two. Beantown rests until May 6, when it hosts New York.