Utah and Arizona are programs which have undergone considerable changes and survived vastly different kinds of adversity over the last year, and as they try to move into new eras, they meet Friday in the Las Vegas Invitational.
Legendary Arizona head coach Dave Sitton died in August, and new head man Sean Duffy is less than a month on the job. Utah’s rugby club is coming off a semester-and-a-half long suspension, which was originally supposed to be much longer, and the Utes have a brand new coaching staff.
“We haven’t played rugby since March. Everybody’s chomping at the bit to get back on the field again and hit somebody beside themselves,” said Utah club president and captain Danny Christensen. “We really just can’t wait.”
Utah has a lot of new players, too. Christensen, Tonata Lauti and Spencer Vickery are well-known veterans who return, but an awful lot of talent has moved on. Guys like John Cullen, Mike Shepherd, Mike Juszczak and Nick Mostyn have either graduated or are out of eligibility. Don Pati is in his last semester of college, but not playing rugby, and Thretton Palamo is still eligible following his last season of football, but it is also not currently playing.
Arizona has lost a lot of talent in recent years, too. Peter Tiberio, Brett Thompson and Ryan Matyas have all played for the Wildcats as recently as the last two seasons before moving onto the 7s National Team. Matyas and Thompson are on the Eagles’ roster for the World Series this weekend. The Wildcats will lean heavily on senior No. 8 Trevor Laue, a former gridiron Wildcat, High School All American flanker Sam Perry and Matyas’ brother Andrew, a Navy veteran.
Friday’s contest opens the regular season for PAC Rugby and gives both teams a shot at starting their new chapters 1-0 in conference play. Arizona played rival Arizona State to a tie in December and lost 76-10 to St. Mary’s last week, while Utah’s only hit-out has been a short scrimmage with the Park City Haggis.
“I would say it’s polar opposites between St. Mary’s and Utah in terms of style, but they’re going to be very, very good,” said Duffy of the Utes.
“They’re going to be strong in the forwards, and they’re going to have a good work rate. Their forwards are going to be able to move very well. Between this game, St. Mary’s, Cal and Cal Poly, it’s going to be a schedule where we find what we have very early.”
The Utes will find out a lot about themselves Friday, too, and Christensen is expecting the results to be positive.
“I honestly believe that we’re going to come out from the beginning and be competitive. We’re obviously going to be doing a lot of improving throughout the season, is the plan,” said the embattled flyhalf.
“We did lose a lot of talent and a lot of size, but the difference maybe this year for us is the team has a little bit different feel – a little bit closer to a brotherhood commitment level, I think, than we’ve had for the last while, and that probably came from the student leadership. We’ve got a lot of guys that are stepping up and doing things off the field that are necessary to make us successful on the field. I really do think that’s going to make up the difference from us losing that size and athletic ability.”
If you're in Las Vegas, you can find this PAC Rugby match-up on field #1 Heritage Park at 1pm PST Friday.