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The Utah Warriors and Glendale Raptors have met once this season, a 36-29 win for the Raptors on May 5. That one was played in Utah, while Saturday’s semifinal will be staged in Glendale, Colo. There are minimal roster changes from the initial encounter.
Both teams feature a pair of guys who will have started both but swapped positions. For the Warriors, AJ Tu’ineau was at wing and Fets Vainikolo at center back in May. They’ve swapped positions for the weekend. For Glendale, Dylan Fawsitt was at hooker and Zach Fenoglio flanker. Saturday, it's the inverse.
There are three more differences in the Raptor starting 15 – John Quill for Peter Dahl at openside, Shaun Davies for Jake Christmann at scrumhalf, and Mika Kruse for Seth Halliman at wing. Quill and Davies are big-time upgrades, and Glendale head man Dave Williams has to be tickled to be able to bring Dahl off the bench. Kruse for Halliman is a relatively lateral switch.
Utah has two more changes, both in the tight five. Alex Vorster started at hooker last time and Lote Tu’ipulotu at prop. Vorster is out, Tu’ipulotu has bumped down to hooker, and the massive Maka Tameilau is in at prop. In the second row, John Cullen gets the start over Matt Jensen. The changes make Utah significantly larger in the front row while the second-row swap will likely have less of an impact.
Glendale: Blake Rogers, Zach Fenoglio, Kelepi Fifita
Utah: Maka Tameilau, Lote Tu’ipulotu, Angus MacClellan
This battle is a push. The team stats show the Raptors have been slightly better in the lineouts all season, while the Warriors have been a little better in the scrum. Both units have standout leaders in Fenoglio (Glendale) and MacClellan (Utah). Take your pick.
Glendale: Dakota O’Neil, Ben Landry
Utah: John Cullen, Saia ‘Uhila
Advantage is to Glendale. Ben Landry is the best player in the bunch, returning after a successful June tour with the Eagles. Interesting that both teams have opted for better all-around players on the ground instead of tall timber. This could have easily been a push, so no major advantage either way.
Glendale: Dylan Fawsitt, John Quill, Sam Figg
Utah: Lance Williams, Ara Elkington, Tevita Tameilau
Advantage to the Raptors. They’re going to be a bit slower with a natural hooker at six, but they’ve got experience in spades. Figg is arguably the best import of the season and Fawsitt the best in-season transfer, if you count being loaned to Glendale by the 2019 expansion Rugby United New York. And Quill is as consistent a performer as there is.
This isn’t to say Utah’s back row is bad. It’s very good. Lance Williams, the Hawaii linebacker new to rugby, is getting better and better as he picks up the game. Ara Elkington is the little engine that could, and my pick as the best pound-for-pound forward in the league. He just doesn't pack many pounds. And Tevita Tameilau is an absolute load. If Utah is to pull off the upset, he'll likely need to play a big role.
Back row is an area of strength for both teams. Ultimately, the collective high-level experience of Glendale’s wins out, though.
Glendale: Shaun Davies, Will Magie
Utah: Joe Nicholls, Kurt Morath
Advantage to Glendale. The Raptors have the hands-down better scrumhalf in Davies, and Utah has the markedly better flyhalf in Morath, both of whom are returning to their clubs after the June tests. While Nicholls has proven himself a handy halfback at this level over the course of the season, Magie is still better at his position than the former BYU backup is at his.
Davies, the best scruhalf in the country, touches the ball more than Morath. He's able to push the pace while managing his team from getting out of control. If he has a typically good game, it could prove the difference.
Glendale: Bryce Campbell, Chad London
Utah: Paul Lasike, AJ Tu’ineau
Advantage to Utah. This is maybe the most arguable battle – both London and Campbell are capped Eagles for Glendale. It’s as good a duo as there is in the league. But neither can hold a torch to Paul Lasike, who has the ability to almost single-handedly turn a game on its head. Lasike had a stellar June with the USA, and he can dominate on both sides of the ball. Tu’ineau is no slouch, but he clearly plays the Robin to Lasike’s Batman.
Glendale: Mika Kruse, Harley Davidson, Maximo De Achaval
Utah: Fetu’u Vainikolo, Tonata Lauti, Don Pati
Advantage to Utah. Glendale’s deep three is anchored by crafty veteran Maximo De Achaval, who’s sandwiched by wildly talented youngsters in Mika Kruse and Harley Davidson. Utah is anchored by Tonga’s all-time leading try scorer in Vainikolo, who’s sandwiched by the more seasoned Ute pairing of Pati and Lauti. Vainikolo is the best of the bunch, and the other guys are horses for courses.
Glendale: White, Kwasniewski, Dahl, Cook, Wanless, Bateman, Malifa, Johnson
Utah: Forrester, Tucci, Scott, Jensen, Elkington, Anderson, Fa’amausili, Nicholls
If the rematch is as close as the original, this is where the game will be decided. The Raptors have a few guys who can come off the bench and truly impact the game. Dahl, the ageless ball hawk, is one. Luke White is a better option off the bench than most teams have, and Ata Malifa can still rattle some bones.
Utah has fewer impact guys, but one is Alex Tucci. Matt Trouville is likely still having nightmares after being run over by the former Colorado State defensive lineman last week, resulting in a Utah try. Anytime you can bring a 6’9” capped lock on in the second half, like Utah can with Jensen, that’s a bonus, too.
Glendale’s bench is deeper and better, though. There are arguably only two Warriors on the bench who would make Glendale’s 23, while a case could be made there are multiple Raptor reserves who’d start for Utah.