Utah opened its PAC Rugby season with a 43-10 defeat of Arizona Saturday at Heritage Park in Henderson, Nevada. The Wildcats trailed by just two at halftime, 12-10, but the Utes rattled off 31 unanswered points in the second half.
Arizona got on the board first with an unconverted try, and Utah responded by mauling in a five-meter lineout and missing its conversion. Kicks at goal were iffy propositions, as the desert wind was blowing strongly on the day.
The Utes took the lead with a second try through the forwards. Arizona conceded a penalty about five meters from its own goal line, and some quick forward crashes landed Utah in the try zone. This time Tonata Lauti hit the conversion, making it 12-5 in Utah’s favor.
Arizona went back on the attack and was helped by a never-ending string of penalties from Utah at the breakdown. The Utes goal line defense was strong, though, repelling numerous point-blank attempts at pay dirt. Utah eventually turned the Wildcats over, but the clearance kick into the wind didn’t relieve much pressure.
Arizona caught one more break when a Utah player was penalized for talking to the referee, oddly while the Utes had possession, and Wildcat flyhalf Andrew Matyas quick-tapped and sliced through the Utah defense for a score. The conversion was missed, leaving the Wildcats down two at halftime.
The Wildcats got another penalty deep in Utah possession, and they opted to kick for the corner, but the ball rolled through the try zone to end the half and a prime scoring opportunity.
The Utes were dominant after intermission, shutting out Arizona in the second half.
“We were just able to spread out the field and hit the lines that we needed to hit. We just cleaned up, basically, what we were doing,” Utah captain Danny Christensen said.
Arizona head coach Dave Sitton said tackling Utah’s massive forwards eventually wore the smaller Wildcats down. Utah’s pack featured some big units, like prop Nick Mostyn, hooker Mike Shepherd and No. 8 John Cullen.
Mostyn and Shepherd have become household names to college rugby observers. Cullen could be on that path. He is certainly well known amongst Utah football fans.
According to his bio on the Utah football website, Cullen was the top-rated junior college offensive lineman in the country when he came to Utah, he started 24 games in two years at left tackle for the Utes and was a second-team all-Pac-12 selection in 2011. He was certainly a load for the Wildcats to tackle from the base of the ruck Saturday.
The win puts Utah in second place in the PAC behind also 1-0 Cal.
“I think for a lot of the guys, a Pac 12 Championship is the goal, and so we’ve talked about that together as a team, and we’d have to start out 1-0 to make that a reality, so I think that was a big focus,” Christensen said.
The captain intimated he wasn’t too worried about Utah’s penchant for penalties in this game.
“The team definitely plays with an attitude, and we’re working on getting the fine tuning, discipline and the conditioning in, but there’s definitely an attitude. There’s definitely some athletes on the team and we know we’ve got a lot of potential, we’ve just to harness it.”