On an overcast but pleasant Saturday afternoon the Denver Barbarians hosted San Francisco Golden Gate in a test between two of the best in the West. After the Barbos’ stunning come-from-behind upset last year, San Francisco was looking for some measure of satisfaction in their return to the Mile High City. Both teams won their respective Elite Cup debut matches while garnering the bonus point, so the showdown at Shea guaranteed to be a thriller with only one team left at the top of the table.
At the onset, both teams cautiously engaged the other, trying to force the opponent into a mistake rather than trying to impose their own will. When it became apparent that each side was too well-drilled to succumb to such tactics, the flow of the game increased in pace and creativity. Spinning the ball wide proved to be Denver’s recipe for success as outside center Kyle Hitt broke through Golden Gate’s backline and whipped a pass wide to winger Phil White streaking in to dot down under the posts for the easy conversion by flyhalf Max De Achaval for the 7-nil lead early.
San Francisco seemed to refocus after the Barbos drew first blood and managed to control possession with their forward pack only to have scoring opportunities thwarted by Denver’s tenacious defending or by their own loose passes and knock-ons. After a long break by Hooker Tim Miller, the Denver support could not arrive in time, and Golden Gate fullback Heine MacFarland sprinted upfield through the scattered defenders before being dragged down just short of the tryline. Moments later, San Francisco entered the scoring column as hulking prop Jacob Nelson drove into two tacklers and reached the ball across the line as he thundered to the ground. MacFarland’s conversion knotted up the match at the midway point of the first half. With the boost in confidence, Golden Gate notched an unconverted corner try by winger Jeff Van Meter to grab the lead 12-7 with 12 minutes remaining in the half. After De Achaval slotted a penalty to draw within two, Denver fullback Phil White returned an attempted clearance kick down the sideline, breaking several would-be tackles along the way, before out-racing MacFarland to the corner of the try zone and giving the Barbos the lead at the break, 15-12.
The second half started off with a bang for San Francisco as fullback MacFarland, running back a deep kick, zigzagged his way across the field before a crisp pass landed in the hands of a streaking Van Meter for the try, subsequently converted by MacFarland to reclaim the lead, 19-15 just minutes into the final stanza. After several minutes of both teams moving up and down the pitch without many real scoring opportunities, Golden Gate flyhalf Volney Rouse took a different tact as he slipped a beautiful chip past the stout Denver defense, which MacFarland touched down agonizingly close to the dead ball line to the Barbos’ consternation. Despite the failed conversion, the try stretched the San Francisco lead to 24-15 with a third of the match to play.
Trailing by more than a converted try, Denver settled in to a poised attack with a concentration on maintaining possession. De Achaval gained a considerable advantage when he popped a kick over the opposition and retrieved it himself amidst a huge collision. In retreat, Golden Gate conceded multiple penalties, drawing the Barbos within striking range for a De Achaval drop goal, which cut three points into the San Francisco advantage. Another dandy chip by Rouse gained his squad possession of the ball deep in Denver territory, and Golden Gate was determined not to squander this opportunity. Committing their complete strength to a rolling maul, the San Francisco pack overcame the Barbos’ stellar resistance to drive over for a crucial, unconverted try by flanker Daniel LaPrevotte with only twenty minutes remaining increasing the Golden Gate lead into double digits, 29-18.
After the prop Nelson was able to break loose in the open field, it started to look as if the wheels might come off for Denver and San Francisco would begin to pull away. However, the Barbos scrambled in defense and began to attack with reckless abandon, creating creases with force rather than tactics. The Golden Gate defenders were able to thwart any Denver advances, and countered the Barbos’ aggression with precise kicking from Rouse and MacFarland that kept Denver under constant pressure and narrowly missed adding to the lead. One such kick landed in the hands of fullback White, who evaded defenders for nearly 60 meters before being caught just short of the line. A quick reversal of field saw center Taylor Howden turn and kick across the field to substitute winger Jake Humphrey who snagged the ball in flight and juked the last defender to score the unconverted try drawing the Barbos within six, 29-23 with only minutes remaining. That would be as close as Denver would get, as San Francisco was able to stave off further comeback attempts and grab sole possession of first place.
Man of the match honors for Denver went to Phil White, while Heine MacFarland earned the same for San Francisco.
Next: Denver Barbarians @ Old Puget Sound Beach 4-13
Denver | 23
Tries: White (2), Humphrey.
Conversions: De Achaval. Pen: De Achaval. Drop Goal: De Achaval.
San Francisco | 29
Tries: J. Nelson, Van Meter (2), MacFarland, LaPrevotte.
Conversions: MacFarland (2).
Referee: Marc Nelson
ARs: David Fellows, Jim Bramley