This coming weekend is Rivalry Weekend in D1-A college rugby, and no game is more anticipated, or more important, than BYU v. Utah.
Both BYU and Utah are undefeated in the West Conference – the Cougars are 4-0 and Utah 3-0 – and neither has really been tested too much in getting there.
Neither team really likes the other all that much. So you can see, it’s all shaping up very nicely.
Last weekend BYU looked a little shaky in the opening 20 minutes against Arizona – it was only 5-3 with a quarter of the game gone. But they turned it on to the tune of 75-5 after that. At their best, BYU looked brutal. Up front they have as big and as effective a front row as anyone. Their second row rotation has height and mobility, and their back row is also strong and powerful.
In the backs, BYU’s performance centers on a halfback pairing that has been together in Provo for almost five years. Scrumhalf Shaun Davies is back from injury, and Dylan Lubbe work superbly well together. Because they connect so well in their passes, everything else clicks, too. Hoseki Kofe and Paul Lasike are awesome in the midfield – strong, skilled, fast, and working well together.
Utah has their hands full. The Utes boast an excellent front row also anchored by All Americans Mike Sherpherd, who has moved to hooker, and the likes of Nick Mostyn and Spencer Vickery. They don’t have the same mobility in the front row, but their back row is of a very different mold than that of BYU. Mike Juczszak and Danny James are classic grafter, ground-covering flankers, and they will need to be. Les Soloai can counter Ryan Roundy well as a fast, physical No.8 who can pass.
In the backs, the key issue for Utah is Don Pati’s passing from halfback. Like Davies, an All American at scrumhalf, Pati is brilliant in virtually every aspect of play – his open field running is almost unmatched. But his passing is inconsistent, and only because his backs are fast, and can change plans on the fly, does he get away with it.
Danny Christensen at flyhalf has all the makings of a good one, and captains the side, as well. Timote Houma is not unlike Kofe and Lasike as a center – he is in fact a converted flanker – while much will be expected of outside center Trevor Trowbridge, who will have to spend a lot of time tackling players bigger than him running full pace.
Where Utah has the measure of BYU it might be out wide. Their deep three of (probably) Tonata Lauti, Loopeti Lauti, and Winston Harris works exceedingly well together, and are superb in open field offensively and defensively. They will have to be.
BYU has to be careful about getting too cute – they did that against Arizona. While Utah has to hope they get cute. Running wild suits the Utes.
Meanwhile BYU has size and experience in the pack. Their front row of Mikey Su’a, Ray Forrester and Chad Harker are huge and imposing, and also fit enough to handle a full 80. Utah’s front row is excellent, but will have to be every bit of that excellence to win the game.
Can Utah’s back row disrupt the Davies-Lubbe machine? Can BYU handle not dominating set piece? Who will let his attention wane at the wrong time?
Utah’s Christenson said the connection between him and Pati is getting better, and would not throw his halfback mate under the bus.
“We’ve been improving throughout the year but we still need to work on our communication,” Christenson told RUGBYMag.com. “I feel like sometimes Don can’t hear me, and that’s something we need to work on.”
Utah’s backline is certainly smaller than BYU’s. Christenson doesn’t mind.
“We love looking smaller than the competition and laying into them anyway,” he said.
Up front, there will be a game within a game.
“Every now and again there’s some indiscipline around the rucks and that was a problem [against Arizona State],” said Utah hooker Shepherd. “Our focus [against ASU] was set piece domination and we did that pretty well, and our pick and jams worked well and our backs do better when we do that. Against BYU it will be a battle. I think whoever plays the best defense and who wins the forward contest will win. I know in the front row it’ll be a battle. Mikey’s guys will bring it and we look forward to it.”
In a game like this, it often comes down to goalkicking. Christenson has been effective for Utah, and Davies is very steady for BYU.
“My kicking is coming along and I just need to practice more,” said Davies. “We know this is a huge game. We’ve been looking forward to it.”
“There is a lot of emotion around this game, there always is,” added BYU captain and No. 8 Ryan Roundy. “I think you can let that be too much, but we understand it’s there. We also know we can’t be loose with the ball. We know if we are careless or we try too many 50-50s they will go right back at us.”
This promises, really, to be one of the most exciting, open, wild matches of the year. Utah is much better, overall, than they were last season. BYU is supremely polished and rightly the #1 team in the nation (yes, even if Cal were in D1-A, RUGBYMag.com would rank BYU #1).
Edge to BYU? Certainly. They are playing at home, and expect to sell out the South Field with perhaps as many as 6,000 fans.
"We love it here," said Ryan Roundy. "South Field is one of the greatest places to play rugby in America. And having the Wasatch Cup here will make it even more exciting."