Tuna Tournament Report: Beach City 7’s, June 24, 2017 Author: James Niblock
The Jim Johnson Memorial Park on Avenida Vista Hermosa was the setting for the Beach City 7’s, and what a “beautiful sight” it was as the tournament hosts, the OC Ravens, provided a facility matching up to the rest of the summer series events in its offering of real grass. As has been well documented, San Clemente has proved to be a fertile nesting territory for great white sharks of late, but it was the San Diego Tunas who would be hoping to make the headlines of the OC Register and take a little heat off the shark press, at least for one weekend.
On paper, the group of 4 certainly had the potential to be problematic for Bryan Barnard’s men/large nomadic fish. Pasadena, never a straightforward proposition in any form of the game; Phoenix, who would be largely represented by ASU collegiates; and Belmont Shore’s Gazelles side, who present a unique challenge and have Beach City 7s history with the Tunas, having beaten the San Diego outfit in a closely contested social final last time out.
Pasadena club stalwart Russ Pitts proved his value to his club yet again, seeing off James Niblock in the 4th round of a dramatic rock, paper, scissors “coin toss”, which saw Niblock finally cave from his “always scissors” ploy and Pitts metaphorically snip the early morning hopes of the Tunas into smithereens. There is no doubt that this psychological upper hand played a part in the Tunas’ tentative start to proceedings as they struggled to defend Pasadena’s athletic backline and ended up conceding the game’s first try. It was not quite as simple as that of course. Pasadena’s center momentarily forgot he was not playing at a conventionally lined rugby pitch, and committed the cardinal sin of attempting to touch down behind the goal posts. On one hand, Pasadena players should be accustomed to this (we’ve seen this sort of nonsense in D1 at LARFC – see Connor Mariani, Cleeandre Ross circa early 2017), but on the other hand, should flexibility around this type of infringement be granted, when a player has certainly done enough to merit a try? In any case, Pasadena persevered and were able to score, however on this occasion the Tunas pinned them closer to the corner, such that they missed the proceeding conversion. And the Tunas would dig in further during the first half, managing to take a narrow lead following some quick hands to release Tron Byrd. Angel Garcia converted.
The scratchy start continued for the Tunas in the second half, and they found themselves 12-7 down with just a few minutes to spare. The first game is often the most challenging to negotiate during these competitions from a fitness perspective, and it was clear that the Tunas had not opened up their gills enough to find their second wind. The Old Aztecs have always managed to find a way to edge Pasadena, no matter how well or how poorly they have performed, and maybe it was the Aztec in Boomer Roller that needed to emerge in the final moments, long past the hooter (nearby car alarm), as he curved around several desperate Pasadena defenders, and after a crippling step, dove in under the posts to send the Tuna bench into a loud chorus of blubs.
Barnard openly admitted his reservations going into his side’s first tournament. And perhaps that concern was fair. This really is quite a randomly assembled group lacking the experience and support of the majority of the feeder club’s 15s squad. The New Zealand Herald, in typically abrasive style, had commented during the week: “It is as though someone requested five tins of the finest albacore, but all that was available was a couple of skipjacks, and one of the cans is dented.” Niblock later revealed his inspiration going into the games was to think about what Jesus was able to accomplish with just a couple of fish.
The Tuna squad was a young one, Roller, the hero of the first game, being the oldest at 29 (and also heaviest). But there’s young, and there’s young. And the Phoenix side did appear very green as the Tunas quickly found their groove during this second group game, gaining confidence from their domination of the breakdown. A four tries to one victory included braces from Garcia and Niblock, with the chip and aggressive chase tactic reaping rewards for the Tunas as a means of quickly relieving pressure, and the strategy would prove itself a good one on several occasions throughout the day. In this battle of desert versus ocean, it was very much ocean which prevailed, and the several thousand local fans, fresh in from an early morning surfing, would certainly have approved.
Tuna is a large fish, weighing up to 550 pounds and reaching lengths of up to 6.5 feet. However the Tunas were made to feel like mere sardines as they lined up against some formidable looking Belmont men for their final group game. At the same time, tuna is not averse to diving to depths of up to 3,000 feet just to find a meal, and they knew that they would be required to go into the well physically in order to overcome the giant Gazelles. The tactic from the off was simply to move ball back and forth and keep it away from the ruck area, and the first passage of play was arguably the team’s most impressive of the day, ending in a Matt Ryan try. This set the precedent, and Byrd, Garcia with a delightful chip and catch, and Niblock, completed the scoring, with the Tunas letting up a little towards the end to allow two Gazelles tries in the last 2 minutes.
As group winners, the Tunas found themselves in a final four semifinal contest against the Santa Monica Dolphins, the other semifinal being OMBAC vs Fullerton. This was a nicely poised game between two evenly matched looking sides, Santa Monica presenting a very different prospect to the Gazelles, with their desire to move ball swiftly and look to change the angle of attack out wide. Often in these contests the first (and second) try is so pivotal to morale, and as the Tunas found themselves 12-0 down at half time, in a frustratingly stop-start contest, they never re-found the rhythm of their past two games. All their lives, all tuna have ever heard is, “Oh, are those cans of tuna dolphin friendly?” You could almost forgive the Tunas for losing their cool both with the situation and the match officials. It was clear that some of them wanted it too much, forcing the issue and retreating to a narrow, aggressive style which proved self-defeating. In the end, Santa Monica crossed another two times to sear the Tunas and swim convincingly to victory. The Dolphins could look forward to a final just thirty minutes later- meanwhile for the Tunas it was Big Helyn’s an hour earlier than they would have liked.