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The last spot in the Major League Rugby playoffs was clinched on Saturday as the Utah Warriors beat the Houston Sabercats, 31-27, while the San Diego Legion improved their postseason seeding by knocking off the unbeaten Glendale Raptors, 23-5, in a brilliant defensive effort to conclude the regular season. The home field advantage ruled in both games as the squads will ride the wave of momentum into the playoffs on Saturday.
With San Diego’s win versus Glendale, the Legion is the third seed and will face the Seattle Seawolves in the semifinals. In the fourth spot, Utah draws Glendale as part of MLR's Saturday playoff doubleheader at Infinity Park.
Houston Sabercats at the Utah Warriors
Needing two standing points against Houston to advance to the inaugural MLR semifinals, the Utah Warriors earned five with a win and a bonus try to jump over the Austin Elite for the fourth playoff spot. At Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman, Utah in front of a crowd of over 4,100 fans, the Warriors engaged in a back and forth conflict where the match wasn’t decided until the last ten minutes of play. When Tonata Lauti scored his second try in the 72nd minute, the Utah faithful began to believe and when the final penalty was kicked into touch, the Warriors celebrated their berth to the postseason.
“We knew it was our last opportunity to make a run to the playoffs and so we wanted to give it everything we could,” Utah head coach Alf Daniels said. “We talked a lot about reducing our errors and the 50/50 passes and cutting out ill-discipline, we felt like we would have a really good chance of nailing this game. Those things fell into place for us today and we are happy to come away with a good win.”
Utah was first on the board when Lauti slipped a tackle on the wing to make to 7-0. Houston responded when Zach Pangelinan passed through traffic to Cecil Garber IV for the try. Sabercats’ flyhalf Sam Windsor slotted the conversion and tacked on a penalty for the 10-7 advantage.
Utah took back the lead in the 31st minute when Saia Uhila scored a forwards try following a five-meter lineout, but Jonny Linehan’s conversion bounced off the post. Windsor had a chance to regain to lead with a penalty, but the chip shot was wide. The flyhalf made up for the miss at the end of the half though when he scored off a set play from a five-meter scrum to give the Sabercats the 17-12 lead at the half.
Windsor’s reliable boot missed again two minutes after the second half kickoff and Utah responded with an Ara Elkington try. Houston answered when Windsor's penalty finally connected and then extended the tally to 27-19 when Osea Kolinisau split the defenders for a dot down under the posts.
Fresh off the bench, Utah prop Alex Tucci gave his team a momentum builder by busting through a duo of tacklers and sprinting 30 meters for a try at the posts. “There were people in front of me and Ara [Elkington] gave me a nice tip pass and it sprung me through," Tucci said. "It caught everyone off guard and after that, it was just trying to find the posts and put the ball down safely. Coach puts you in those situations and you have to come away with something.”
Down by one point with ten minutes left, the Warriors took some of Tucci’s energy to grab the lead for good. Starting with a lineout, the ball was spun wide to Vainikolo who ran 40 meters before pitching it back to Lauti in support for the final 20 meters. It was Lauti’s league-leading eighth try of the season.
“At the end, we knew everything was on the line,” Lauti stated. “We had a great opportunity with the lineout, came out and we knew we had strength outside. Fetu’u [Vainikolo] had a great run, broke tackles and left me open on the outside. I just had to be there and he passed me the ball.”
It was in the defense’s hands for the rest of game and the matched ended on a not releasing penalty to Utah. All that was left was the kick to touch and the Warriors were playoff bound with the 31-27 victory.
Houston never gave up and pushed Utah to the limit like it has done all season. “We’ve had a rough go of it as we’ve been within seven points in the majority of our games,” eightman Kyle Sumsion said. “It was disappointing but it was ping-pong match. In a game of sports, someone has to win and someone has to lose and unfortunately, we fell on the wrong side.
“The season didn’t go our way but we are a team that played as brothers and never let that discourage us. We gave it all every game and I’m really proud of the team. We kept coming out and playing our best we could. We are going to build on this first season and get better in the second season.”
It’s not the end for Utah and Daniels believes the Warriors’ best performance is ahead of them. “The biggest challenge for this team is that we’ve never had our best players on the paddock for one game this season. We’ve had five season-ending injuries, most notably the Whippy brothers and those happened so early we kind of been on the back foot the whole time. Just as we started to find our footing, we lost Paul [Lasike] and Kurt [Morath] to international duties. Having them back is a major boost to this team and these players. We look up to those guys and the leadership and steadiness that they bring going into the semifinals will be great for us.”
Glendale at San Diego
With both teams already qualifying for the playoffs, Glendale and San Diego wanted to end the MLR regular season on high notes. For the Raptors, they had a chance to finish the year undefeated and the Legion had an unblemished home record to protect. What followed was an inspired defensive effort from San Diego that held the high-scoring Raptor offense scoreless until the final minute of play. When the dust settled, San Diego unseated the undefeated for a 23-5 victory and go into the semifinals with focus and determination.
“It was championship rugby,” Legion head coach Rob Hoadley said. “As you get to the end of the season, it’s more about getting your defense and set-piece right and winning the field position, which we did really well for periods in the game. We still let ourselves down in the last 15 minutes and we know we will have to tidy it up against a good Seattle side next week. I was very pleased with our intensity.”
The key to the game was stifling Glendale’s potent offense. “We really tried to take the gain line away from them in defense,” Hoadley continued. “[The Raptors] scored 17 tries in their last three games so they are very confident, including five against Seattle last week. They are a very competent attacking side and generally have threats all across the field. We knew we would have to be very good in the physical contact in order to spread and fill the width of the field. The guys did a good job of that.”
Both defenses stepped up to the task in the first half and the only points that were scored came from a pair of penalties from Tadhg Leader’s boot. Each team had their opportunities but San Diego held the 6-0 lead at the break.
The Legion made a statement coming out of the half when Ryan Matyas outmaneuvered the Glendale defense for a long-range try. About ten minutes later, the Raptors were binned for repeated infringement and the Legion capitalized on the ensuing play when Drew Gaffney scored off a driving maul. Leader made it 20-0 with the conversion and added another penalty in the 72nd minute to push the advantage further. Fearing the goose egg, Glendale finally scored off sustained pressure in the final minute as Grigor Kerdikoshvili crossed the whitewash and the match ended soon after.
The 23-5 loss will hopefully serve as a wake-up call for Glendale. Head coach David Williams was critical of his team’s play saying, “We were poor on both sides of the ball. Fair play to San Diego and playing well to get the win. We will get better and have to be better next week in preparation for the semifinals.”
Starting with the win against Austin, San Diego has been in playoff mode for the last two weeks. “We are just building momentum into the playoffs,” Hoadley exclaimed. “We knew it was a critical game for us to make a statement. We definitely did that but playoff rugby starts next week. The result today doesn’t matter next Saturday against a very competent Seattle side. We build again and have a great week of training and be ready for the job on Saturday.”
The semifinal against Seattle is a rematch of the first game of the season and Hoadley knows exactly what is at stake and where his team needed to improve. “You don’t have to be a brain surgeon to know the obvious thing from the first game was the scrum where we conceded 21 points from penalty tries. It changed the game so we’ve really built on the tight five and built tough competition for places. The key area everyone is going to look at is the set piece. It has to be the foundation and if we will have a chance in the game, it will have to start with the set-piece battle.”