The Utah Warriors, in their first summer playing 7s, are the champions of the Pacific Coast, and they could well be crowned national champions Sunday at Sheeran Field in San Francisco.
The Warriors lose no players from the Pacific Coast Championship team, except Mike Palefau. Palefau is their top playmaker and one of the best all-around players in the country, but he has to report for the Eagles 15s assembly Sunday and will not be available.
(Palefau is not available for the Eagles in their Saturday showdown with Canada, as personal commitments are forcing him to join the team late, but he should be in the mix for the rematch a week later and the Japan game later this month.)
Don Pati, The University of Utah star who played for the Warriors earlier this summer, is also not expected to play, as he's recovering from knee surgery.
Suiting up for the Warriors, however, will be Maka Unufe, who starred for U19 runners-up United (Utah) in the spring. 7s Eagles coach Al Caravelli has called Unufe the find of the summer and compared his speed and agility to that of Palefau, which is about as high a praise as the coach could bestow upon the up-and-comer.
"Maka is a really dynamic player. He's a young guy with immense amounts of athletic ability and a real sense for the game of rugby actually," said Jason Pye, 7s Eagle and Utah player/7s coach.
"It’s a great opportunity for him to play with us and grow. Mainly because when you have someone who has the ability to be a true star, if they’re not surrounded with other good talent, it’s very difficult for them to shine. With our whole roster, I think we have a lot of talented guys who can all share the workload in scoring tries and making a defensive stand, and so I think it gives him the ability to focus on smaller things and make the impact in that manner.
"You’ll definitely seem him out there (at Nationals) and he’ll be really fun to watch, but the reason that he’ll shine so much past his athletic ability and God-given ability is the workload’s going to be shared pretty evenly amongst the team."
Pye, with Palefau out, is Utah's biggest name. He's been an Eagle selection in the last 12 months, he's a former All American and he's coached the University of Utah to two Collegiate Rugby Championship appearances, winning the Cup in the first go-round.
Outside of Pye, there aren't too many recognizebale names. Matt Byrd is a former Utah All American, and he was invited to the Eagles domestic camp in the spring, but other than during the Warriors' lone Super League season, Byrd's been out of the game for a while.
Ryan Chapman, who also attended the Eagles spring domestic camp, is another talent that's been unearthed by the Warriors. The No. 8 did play for Glendale previously, but wasn't invited to his first National Team camp until playing for Utah. Chapman, along with several other Warriors, is playing his first summer of 7s.
"There’s a few that are kind of dabbling for the first time in 7s, Ryan being one of them, and he’s really enjoyed it," said Pye.
"Ryan and I are good friends...and he’s ecstatic about 7s. He wants his 15s game to improve, but he’s got a true love for the sport of rugby, and he’s just looking to go out there and run at anyone who dares try and tackle him, so I wish those guys luck."
What the Warriors lack in star power they make up with chemistry. Outside of Unufe, nearly every member of the 7s team played 15s for the Warriors in the spring, something few clubs who'll be joining Utah at Nationals can say. The Warriors are taking a resting approach to preparing for Nationals, having not played a tournament last week. What's on tap for this week? According to Pye, continuing to strengthen their chemistry.
"I'd love to get the guys up (to my gym) sometime this next week and do a boxing session…Just to kind of really pull the guys together a little bit. I think that’s very important that you have that camaraderie and you're willing to do whatever it takes for the guy next to you on the field, so we’ll focus a little bit on that and work a little bit more on the pattern, and that’s going to be our buildup."
The Warriors are joined in Pool A, also known as the Pool of Death, by Glendale, the Chicago Lions and San Francisco Golden Gate. The Warriors defeated SFGG in the Pacific Coast Championships last month, but have never played Glendale or the Lions in 7s or 15s.
Pat Clifton will be tweeting live from Club 7s Nationals Saturday and Sunday via @Rugby_Magazine. You can also follow him via @Pat_Clifton.