The Utah Warriors, 2-2, play for their playoff lives Saturday. With Utah in third place in the West and having already lost to second-place Old Puget Sound Beach, it’d be hard to imagine a scenario where a three-loss Warrior team makes the postseason.
Unfortunately for Utah, perhaps, their opponent Saturday is undefeated San Francisco Golden Gate, who beat the Warriors 32-8 in San Francisco last month.
Despite an unfavorable final scoreline, the Warriors feel they let one get away in the Bay Area.
“The one thing I keep telling people is the final score in San Francisco is not indicative of the competitiveness of the game. I don’t think I’m being too super-biased saying that,” said Utah captain and No. 8 Ryan Chapman.
“There was a lot of frustration with that last game in San Francisco, it being our first loss and a game we were in. Coming into the locker room at halftime, everybody thought that was a winnable game. We put up eight points right before halftime, and we felt like we were in a pretty good spot to come away with a win, and then the lack of continuity got us and we started going out of our pattern. In the locker room (after the game) you should have seen the look on people’s faces. Everybody knew we had blown an opportunity there.”
The Warriors have been training and playing together for less than six months, so understandably, they’re still jelling as a team and learning to work within the confines of the system their coaches have laid out. But when things break down, when a mistake is made on the other team’s behalf, they can be lethal in capitalization.
“They’re athletes. They can turn a mistake into points,” said SFGG coach Paul Keeler, who saw Utah fullback Mike Palefau do just that right before halftime in March. “You’ve got to minimize your mistakes and sloppy opportunities more than anything. We’re going to make our mistakes. How do we recover? Do we try to force something, do we come out of our system?”
SFGG came out of their system in the first half of their last meeting with Utah, but when their play was tightened up in the second half, and their patterns were adhered to, they ran away from the Warriors, scoring 22 unanswered points to close the game.
Utah, admittedly, is playing for revenge. But that’s not all. Utah owner Sean Whalen is the first of his kind in American rugby. Yes, because he’s an owner, but also because of his public, shall we say, confidence, which he exudes in interviews and via Facebook and Twitter. He’s talked about winning the Super League title and used words like ‘dominate’, which sits badly with many in Super League circles.
“Some of it we sort of find silly and entertaining,” said Keeler of Whalen and the Warriors’ ‘confidence’. “Some of the comments that have been attributed to them, are they in bad form and have ruffled some feathers? Yeah, of course. I think there’s a fine line between being entertaining and banter, and (what they do).”
Chapman, who joined the Warriors from Glendale, says he’s had a similar target on his back before.
“I’m pretty familiar coming out of that situation, coming out of Glendale, where there was a lot of that same attitude around Denver, between the Barbarians and Highlanders, and Glendale being kind of looked at as that entitled new kid on the block with a bad attitude, but is really just trying to do good stuff for the game of rugby, and I really feel that’s what the Warriors are about,” he said.
The Warriors, led by Chapman, have circled the wagons around their loquacious leader.
“The things he has been able to pull together as far as creating a professional atmosphere for rugby, everybody on that field feels a little bit of indebtedness, so to speak, to everything Sean has done, the way he stuck his neck out for the team,” said the captain. “So yeah, we feel a bit of pressure to uphold the things he’s saying.”
If the Warriors are going to win the Super League, like Whalen’s said on numerous occasions, they’ll need to first make the playoffs, and in order to do that, they’ll need to beat SFGG Saturday.