SAN DIEGO — Odds of a thrilling end to the match are high when the Utah Warriors square off against the San Diego Legion, and Sunday’s season opener certainly stayed true to form.
Unfortunately the Warriors were on the losing end of this particular bout, having their late comeback bid fall short, taking a 31-29 loss.
Down 31-15 in the match’s 74th minute, Utah staged a furious rally that was highlighted by a particular standout defensive play and counter by Mikey Te’o, among several others. And although it all came up just short, coaches and players both came away relatively positive heading into Thursday’s match versus Seattle, and indeed for the rest of the season.“There’s a lot of building blocks for us, especially over the last 20 to 30 minutes,” said Warrior head coach Shawn Pittman. “…We have to focus on the really positive things, tweak what was negative, and then I think we’re in a really good spot.”
Ending with the positive is certainly what you want to see as head coach, and there were many good things that happened late. As mentioned, Te’o headed what was undoubtedly the standout play of the match for the Warriors. With the Legion deep in Warriors’ territory, the 2021 Major League Rugby MVP intercepted a pass before sprinting all the way down to midfield. From there, Te’o passed the ball back to Caleb Makene to complete the run all the way across the try line, cutting the score to 31-22 following the successful conversion kick.“It put us in a really good position to get some bonus points. It was much needed,” Pittman said. “That’s what we did so well last year — having those bonus points…Mikey bailed us out with a great defensive read. It was awesome.”
Finishing off the scoring for Utah was Tuvere Vugakoto, who crossed the try line in the match’s 88th minute to critically cut the score to 31-29 and thereby earning a bonus point in the standings by virtue of losing by fewer than seven points.But for how well the Warriors played in the match’s final minutes, the play throughout the first half, and into the second half’s first 10 minutes wasn’t up to par with what the Legion showed forth. After taking an early 3-0 lead off a penalty from Cliven Loubser, the Legion took back the lead at 5-3 entering the half, before extending its lead to 17-3 after just a few minutes of second half play. From there the Warriors rallied, playing the home team on even terms before taking a decided advantage to close out the match.
According to Pittman, the slow start can be chalked up to first-game-of-the-season rust. “We didn’t have a preseason match, so (the first half) was our preseason match,” Pittman said. “We got rid of all the jitters and I think we got some confidence in the last 30 minutes.” “I think the whole delay of the start of the game kind of put us on our back foot,” added Warriors center Tyler Fisher. “…Also the heat played a bit of a role with us starting out slow…and unfortunately it just didn’t go our way at the start.” Fisher felt his team was in it for the entirety of the game, despite the running deficit throughout on the scoreboard, citing defensive lapses for at inopportune junctures in providing the Legion its early lead. “We just knew we needed to stay composed,” Fisher said. “…our team fitness and structure ended up playing a big role, and we had some guys come in late to give some bang for us.”
Perhaps standing out most among the late substitutions was Niall Saunders, who subbed in at the critical half scrum spot, lending the team a critical boost late. “He does a phenomenal job picking up the energy for the boys,” Pittman said of Saunders, crediting the Irish national for the team’s improved ball movement late. Despite the loss, Pittman and his players come away from San Diego encouraged and excited for Thursday’s match versus the Seattle Seawolves. “I think it’s a massive positive because I think that will be a building block for what happens (on Thursday,)” Pittman said. “Against Seattle we want to play the more unstructured moments of the game because that’s where we thrive.”
Utah takes on Seattle this Thursday at 8:30pm MST before traveling to take on the Austin Gilgronis on February 19.