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With San Francisco Golden Gate entrenched in first place in the West, having wins over both Old Puget Sound Beach and the Utah Warriors, Saturday’s match between Utah and OPSB, both 2-1, in Salt Lake City could turn out to be the first half of a two-game series to decide second place in the Red Conference.

“This is a must-win for us,” said Eagle and OPSB inside center Alipate Tuilevuka. “With the new format and with so few teams making the playoffs, you can't afford to lose too many games. So every game is big for us right now.”

“If we want to keep pace, if we want to stand on equal footing with these guys...every game is important,” Utah coach Jon Law said.

OPSB will be without star Isi Daveta Saturday and the rest of the season, putting even more playmaking responsibility on the shoulders of Tuilevuka, who could probably stand to be a little more selfish at times with the ball in hand.

Tuilevuka is a long-time Ute, having played at BYU club ball with the Provo Steelers and Park City Haggis, so Saturday will be a homecoming, of sorts, for him. It’s also his first time playing against the Warriors, who wanted him as a teammate rather than an opponent. 

“We hope to give him a nice, hard welcome home,” said Law. “We had a discussion, he and I, after we were given the opportunity to join the Super League. He had already moved up (to Seattle), he had made commitments. He felt he needed to honor those. I thought that was the respectable thing to do, and wish him all the best in those things, but he’s the enemy this week until the final whistle blows.”

“I was hoping that we’d have Pate as well, but his wife’s family is up there and he’s really enjoying his time up there, and with Waisale Serevi up there, I think that’s nice for him to be around as well,” added Jason Pye, Warrior captain and former teammate of Tuilevuka’s on multiple occasions.

“Pate’s a great player, and obviously he’s someone that we’ve spoken about in the midfield and his strengths as a ball winner in the midfield. He tends to turn over a lot of ball, but I think he’s an anomaly in the team. I don’t think he’s the norm. We’ve talked about the amount of physicality as compared to kind of the makeup of their team.”

The backline opposite Tuilevuka will be anchored by 7s Eagles Pye and Mike Palefau, who are surrounded by other significant playmakers, which might prompt an odds maker to call the battle between backfields a scratch. Most observers, however, would probably look at the pack match-up as an area where Utah should have a marked advantage, but that’s not the way Law sees it.

“They’ve got good skill, of course, in their backs, but you know what impresses me is the proficiency of their forwards,” he said. “They’re actually a lot better than they’ve been given credit for, so we’re wary of that.”

Utah, by Law’s admission, has had its fair share of problems covering the width of the field this season, and their match with SFGG was lost in the second half, prompting an emphasis on fitness. OPSB, under the tutelage of Waisale Serevi, plays an expansive game, so Utah’s fitness could be a big factor Saturday.

“We had a bye week last week, and we spent a lot of time with an MMA trainer doing a lot of conditioning work, trying to ramp that up,” said Pye. “We know that’s something we need to work on in order to compete and reach our goals this year, so we had some training sessions down there and that worked out well and developed some camaraderie with the team.”

Kickoff is set for 2pm at McCarthy Field.