LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Utah opened its PAC Rugby Conference schedule with an astounding result – a 38-0 shutout of UCLA on the road. Given the strength of UCLA and the 81-15 hammering Saint Mary’s provided the Utes in January, it’s fair to say the result was a bit surprising.
However, since the 66-point loss to the Gaels, Utah has quietly tightened its screws and made steady improvement.
First, Utah went to Oregon and dispatched of group of four fellow NCAA Pac-12 teams by a combined score of 118-5 at the PAC North Tournament. The weekend of abbreviated matches was followed by this season’s first rendition of the program’s rivalry match against BYU. The Cougars were victorious to the tune of 50-22, but the result seemed to offer evidence that D1A Rugby’s newest Independent squad had vastly improved in the two weeks following the blowout against Saint Mary’s.
Following Arizona’s inability to challenge Cal last week, the winner of the Utah and UCLA match was figured to be the lone team in the PAC equipped to pull off an upset over the Bears. For a conference opener, this match had plenty on the line.
Unsurprisingly, it was AIG Men’s Collegiate All-American Tonata Lauti who got the scoring underway with a try from his full back position. Besides gashing line breaks, Lauti’s defense was also instrumental in the team’s ability to preserve a shutout.
Following the All-American’s score, Utah was able to add a second unconverted try and a penalty kick in the first half to go into halftime leading, 13-0 – leaving UCLA within striking distance of a come-from-behind win. Instead, the Utes used a quality performance from its tight five, especially try-scoring lock Nyles Lapuaho, All-American prop Spencer Vickery, and hooker Chad Gough, to assist in winning the second half, 25-0.
Preventing any team from scoring is a difficult task, but shutting out a team with the caliber of players UCLA possesses, including multiple returning All-Americans, is barely feasible. Saturday’s statement win and Utah’s steady improvement just about guarantees rematches against Saint Mary’s and BYU in March will be much more hotly contested than the January showings.
Utah will briefly turn its attention to sevens as the team preps for this week’s Las Vegas Invitational. D1A Rugby’s 11th-ranked team won’t have training sessions to spare when they return from Sin City, as the Utes’ next 15s match is against Cal Feb. 28.