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Saturday’s match against San Francisco Golden Gate was a must-win for the Utah Warriors. At 2-2, Utah needed an upset to stay in the West playoff hunt. If you weren’t aware of the postseason implications, but were on hand at Walker Park Saturday, you would have concluded, from Utah’s physicality and intensity early on, that something was up.
Several Warriors made thumping tackles in the match’s opening minutes, displaying the sheer power in defense they’re becoming known for. However, many of the tackles either were a penalty or were quickly negated by one. SFGG was not penetrating much with the ball in hand, but they were making great strides in dead play with their boot.
SFGG didn’t take immediate advantage of Utah’s over aggression, as they opted to run instead of kick for points in a couple different instances, and Utah’s red zone defense was outstanding. But after yet another Utah penalty and two failed attempts at five points, Volney Rouse signaled he was going for posts, and he gave SFGG a lead, albeit 3-0, that they’d never relinquish.
On SFGG’s next possession, Warrior prop Kite Afeaki delivered the most thunderous tackle of the game on SFGG star Mile Pulu. It electrified the fans, but triggered another whistle. SFGG scored on the ensuing lineout, and Utah trailed 10-0, due in large part to their lack of discipline.
“That’s what we wanted to do. We felt if we could put them under pressure right away they would commit penalties and put us in a spot to score some tries,” SFGG coach Paul Keeler said.
“We played mindless rugby. I think we just forgot a few technical aspects of the game, and those were legitimate calls,” added Utah coach John Law. “In fact, I think that was the best officiated game we’ve seen so far. We just had a couple of guys that are still young and unseasoned.”
Two more penalties later, Utah hooker Aaron Eckerd was sin binned for not retreating on a penalty and tackling the SFGG ball carrier. Up a man, the West leaders went on attack, but were forced out of bounds near Utah’s five-meter line. With John Van der Giessen suiting up in his first game for Utah, this should have been a easy lineout to win. However, the throw was a tad short, and Samu Manoa plucked the ball from VDG’s loose grasp and dove in for SFGG’s second try.
Gate stayed on the offensive and added another try shortly thereafter. Down 22-0, Utah was in desperate need of a momentum boost. First, they’d need possession, which due to penalties and poor ball retention, they hadn’t seen much of the match’s first 35 minutes. But when they needed it most, playmaker fullback Mike Palefau delivered a centered try, converted, to draw the Warriors within 15 at halftime.
Roles reversed somewhat in the second half, as SFGG appeared on the ref’s radar early and often. Utah capitalized with a penalty to draw closer at 22-10, and to add insult to injury, the offending SFGG player was binned.
The ensuing restart, however, was mishandled by Utah, and Pulu cashed in for a try, extending SFGG’s lead to 29-10. But just as quickly he made a highlight, Pulu added the game’s lowlight, as he was carded for swinging at a Utah player just minutes after scoring. With Pulu in the bin as well, Utah took a 15-13 personnel advantage. They spun it wide off the penalty, and Van der Giessen scored his first try as a Warrior, making it 29-17.
Though now up just two scores and down two men, Keeler said he kept his cool. “I wasn’t really worried. I was never worried at all about losing the game. I really think that very early on, a certain style of play was tolerated, and because it wasn’t nipped early, that it came back to bite us,” said the coach. “Like anything, players try to play the ref, and they wanted to see what they could get away with, and they didn’t.”
The next score was probably the most telling of the game, as a dwindling SFGG side went on attack, and after a few phases, found an obvious overlap (SFGG is playing two men down, remember) for a score, pushing the lead back to 19 at 36-17.
Utah, to their credit, did not give up at this point. The match was out of reach, but they continued to fight, with team leaders Jason Pye and Mike Palefau leading a charge down the field that produced five points.
SFGG responded, though, with 13-consecutive points, off a drop goal, penalty, try and conversion. With the game well out of doubt, Pye added Utah’s last try, making the final score 49-29 in favor of SFGG.
Though disappointed with the loss, Law had nothing but complimentary things to say about SFGG.
“The reality is I don’t know that we so much lost that game as we just got beaten by a better team. Those guys are stone cold,“ he said. “I tell you what, as far as I’m concerned, and the amount of film I’ve seen, it’s going to take a special effort for anyone to beat those guys.”