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For 80 minutes, two teams fighting to stay in the MLR playoff hunt engaged in a battle of Fijian flair and brute force. After changing the lead six times, the Utah Warriors grabbed the advantage with ten minutes left and the defense held on for the 36-30 victory over the Houston Sabercats. With the decisive road win, Utah remains in playoff contention with a 2-3 record while Houston falls to 1-4.
“Overall, it was a scrappy game, a bit of a dogfight, and it got messy to be honest,” Utah captain Paul Lasike said. “The last five minutes pretty much summed up what I was happy about. We were able to hold on defensively, get out of jail, and retain the ball until the clock ran off. Overall, it was a messy dogfight but I was happy the boys showed a lot of heart in the last five minutes.”
Head coach Alf Daniels echoed his captain saying, “It wasn’t the prettiest but I am really proud that the boys were able to come back in the second half. They were able to hang in there and show some real courage and grit to see the game out.”
Utah knew it was going to be an 80-minute brawl as the squads exchanged blows in the first half. Houston started quick mounting a 10-0 lead by the fifth minute and Utah came right back with back-to-back tries from Matt Jensen and Lance Williams. It didn’t take Houston long to respond with a score from Josua Vici and Windsor’s second penalty but the Warriors had the last shot through a Kurt Morath penalty to trail 20-17 at the break.
The first ten minutes of the second half was action packed as Utah fullback Don Pati showed off his brilliance with a try, Houston’s Windsor answered with his third penalty three minutes later, and then Tonata Lauti came right back with a short-handed try to extend the Warrior lead to 29-23.
The score stayed there until the 62nd minute when Connor Murphy snuck over the line and Windsor connected on the conversion to go up by one point. Utah came back once again as Don Pati set up Lote Tu’ipolotu for the score and the 36-30 advantage. Houston had its chances in the final ten minutes but couldn’t put in the game-winning try. The Utah defense stood tall under immense pressure and closed out the match for the W.
Lasike was proud of his team’s effort, especially the spark Don Pati gave the team to start the second half. However, it was the team defense at the conclusion that proved to be most satisfying. “We have been known for choking as a team. To be able to hold on in the last five minutes is a huge positive for us. I know we can do it and it’s a good sign for us going forward.”
With its playoff hopes in doubt, Houston head coach Justin Fitzpatrick said, “The last couple of weeks we had our opportunities to close it out in the final few minutes and failed to do so... The two scores we gave away in the first half were a little bit soft and that brought them back into the game when they really hadn’t earned anything. In the second half, it went back and forth and we had our opportunities and weren’t able to complete them. It was that simple.”
“We need to be more clinical,” Fitzpatrick continued. “We had plenty of opportunities to win the game and we failed to execute. We need to take a long hard look at ourselves and ask questions why that is. When we were able to execute, we scored some healthy tries. We didn’t do that enough and played the price for it.”
Houston hosts Seattle next Saturday. “[The Seawolves] are a group we know very well,” Fitzpatrick stated. “I’ve coached a vast majority of them and played most of them in January. They are playing very well at the moment and are pretty confident. We need to focus on ourselves and make sure we’re up for a very talented and confident side when they arrive next weekend.”
As for Utah, the Warriors will attempt to turn their inspired play into a winning streak when they travel to Austin on Friday. It’s a rematch from a couple of weeks ago and Utah will have a quick turnaround to prepare.
“The big things for us is to get into that set-piece again and tidy it up, cut out the pressure we bring on ourselves through unforced errors and 50/50 passes, and try to be a little bit more patient building our structure,” Daniels concluded.