BOULDER, Colo. – Cal Poly will leave the warm confines of San Louis Obispo, Calif. and climb more than 4,000 feet to Salt Lake City, where the Mustangs will compete with Utah April 18 in the opening round of the D1A Playoffs.
On paper, the match between No. 7 Cal Poly out of the California Conference and No. 6 Utah, the only Independent team to reach the Playoffs, might be the most compelling matchup out of Saturday’s three games. The Utes are plenty battle tested after a successful season in the PAC Rugby Conference, while Cal Poly’s lone conference loss came against No. 2 Saint Mary’s and is coming off of its best performance of the season – a 48-7 win over San Diego State.
“That was our best game of the season by far,” said Cal Poly Head Coach James Tesoriero. “We’ve played good stretches for 20 or 40 minutes so far this year, and on Saturday we put together 80 minutes for the first time, and it was a very good 80 minutes.”
The complete performance against the Aztecs was in part due to the sound play of Cal Poly’s tight five. The group, thought as a potential weakness heading into the season, has matured quickly and benefitted from a three-day camp in San Francisco where the team put an emphasis on set pieces guided by a few guest coaches.
“They’re guys who aren’t really big-name players, and haven’t played a whole lot of representative rugby, but they’re just very good, very solid,” Tesoriero said of his forward pack.
While the Mustangs’ set pieces have improved during the season, Cal Poly is equally impressed with the functionality of Utah’s lineouts.
“They’ve got good movements and the hooker can hit his spots well,” noted Tesoriero.
Utah’s schedule, which included two matches against both Saint Mary’s and BYU, as well as contests with Arizona State and Cal, has no doubt prepared Saturday’s hosts for the intensity of the Playoffs’ win-or-go-home scenario. Still, the Utes understand the Mustangs have the ability to make things difficult as far as matchups.
“They are a very capable side,” said Utah Director of Rugby Mark Drown. “They have good team size across the board and their fly half can burn you if he sees a gap to exploit. Defensively, they keep their shape well, and their size is a factor to be dealt with.”
All signs point to a tight-knit battle in the forwards, but each side possess standouts in the back line capable of moving the ball from touch line to touch line.
“They play quite an expansive brand of rugby,” Tesoriero said of Utah. “They’ve got some dangerous outside backs and a very good full back.”
The man in the No. 15 jersey Tesoriero is referring to is Tonata Lauti, who, along with fly half Danny Christensen, can slice through a defense with ease. For Cal Poly’s back line, it starts with Max Tacket. The outside center has been dominant in California Conference play, but doesn’t need to go it alone on attack. The Mustangs’ back three of Mark Grzanich, Mikey Mitchell, and Brandon Puccini have also been exceptional.
A Quarterfinal match on the road against Saint Mary’s awaits the winner of Saturday’s game. Cal Poly fell to the Gaels, 48-10, during conference play, while Utah was jumped by the No. 2-ranked side, 81-15, back in January before avenging the 66-point loss against a combination of Saint Mary’s starters and reserves with a 49-21 victory in Utah.