Don't look now, but San Mateo won their opening league game 39-0 on Saturday.
For the former national DI champs, the victory was a welcome change from last season's last place finish in Northern California.
It was the first last place finish in the team's history.
"We realized something was amiss within the teams machinery," said club president Murdo Nicholson.
So they initiated another first - a summer without 7s. Instead of playing 7s the club went to the all-Polynesian tournament in Hawaii, "for some rugby soul-searching," Nicholson said. "The team found its prowess again by taking first place. It was also decide to join forces with the San Mateo Warriors High School team by renaming ourselves the San Mateo Warriors men’s club."
Those changes made the club feel like they'd righted things somewhat, and then Nicholson went on an offseason recruiting drive. Among those he found was Kanoa Montgomery, a Humboldt State alum and all-star who had spent three years playing abroad in New Zealand and Australia. The Santa Rosa, Calif. native was looking for a new club, and Nicholson, a Humboldt State alumnus himself, brought Montgomery in.
A loose forward whose nickname is Conan, Montgomery has a broader role than just that of rugby player.
"He is the fitness and rugby training specialist this team has needed since Vaea Anitoni stopped training the team," said Nicholson. "Over the years, the team lacked in rugby training and conditioning. Besides being a fitness guru, Kanoa is like a magnet to the ball. He is everywhere on the field, always close to the ball and gaining possession."
That was just part of a youth movement for the club.
"It was my goal to reduce the teams average starting age to be in the low 20s," said Nicholson.
In recent years the supposed youth movement for San Mateo has been a combination of 30-somethings and some 19-year-olds rushed too soon. Now, as they work in the players in their young 20s, they are playing better and together.
That's not to say they are perfect. Their game against Sacramento Capitals, which ended 36-0, was 0-0 at halftime. In the second half, San Mateo weathered a very tough Capitals pack, especially in the scrum, and exploited some serious issues in the Capitals backs three to score six tries. San Mateo's chase on the kick was superior to Sacramento's defense, but it was one mismatch. What San Mateo can do to build on the victory remains to be seen.
It helps to have more of a talent influx. Joining the club this season is Toke Kefu, who was a running back at straight Eastern Washington University.
"He provides Gore-ish like running abilities," said Nicholson of the center, referring to San Francisco 49-ers running back Frank Gore. "Along with him came several of his buddies eager to make a name for themselves also. The biggest change to the club has been through our high school feeder program. Straight off of winning the California High School championships."
The men’s club picked up six of the team's grads, all of whom started last Saturday. Leading the way was USA U20 player Patrick Latu, as well as lock Saia Mataele.
Nicholson said he felt that the win over Sacramento showed the benefits of Montgomery's fitness program. That remains to be seen as they wade their way through a tough NorCal schedule.
But for now, San Mateo is in first place, and thinking that is a lot more fun that being last.
"Our real test is this Saturday as we play the Olympic Club at home," Nicholson said. "San Mateo has failed to obtain a victory over them for several years. This is the match that will likely determine the direction our season will take."