BOULDER, Colo. – Three D1A teams are involved in PAC Rugby Conference action this weekend as Utah heads to the Pacific Northwest to face Oregon State, and Arizona is on the road against UCLA.
West Conference Champions Utah is 2-0 in PAC play having already beaten Arizona and Arizona State. Since the cancelation of their Jan. 30 game in California against Saint Mary’s due to rode closures, it would appear that the Utes game against Oregon State would only be their second in four weeks. However, always striving to get better, Utah has squeezed in two scrimmages against quality senior club sides in that time span.
“We’ve remained consistent with competitive opportunities,” said Utah Assistant Coach Jon Law. “But this team is always honored to pull the ‘U’ over their chest and have a run.”
Utah’s opponent has also dealt with a recent cancelation when Oregon’s State’s contest against Washington was called-off. Still, early season wins against rival Oregon have built some confidence within the program, but the team understands competition will stiffen immensely come PAC Rugby play.
“The main focus is getting the training speed and intensity to continually increase to better replicate match conditions against more experienced teams,” explained Beavers Head Coach Anthony Lally. “This will be very true of Utah who have good line speed, and are hungry at the ball.”
Oregon State is a much younger team than Utah, with underclassmen dominating the roster. There are, however, a few senior leaders attempting to help Lally guide the ship. Amongst that group is captain and loose head prop Dakota Parker, whose work in the scrum continues to mature.
A victory over the Beavers is crucial for the Utes. Currently tied atop of the PAC standings with Cal and UCLA, a win Saturday guarantees at least a share of the lead in the conference going forward. March fixtures against Cal and UCLA are both at home for Utah, making a pathway to the PAC title manageable.
“Cal and UCLA are always huge challenges for us,” said Law. “While winning the conference has not been a stated goal for this team, we play to win every game, regardless of our opponent on the day.”
Arizona’s date with UCLA is the team’s seventh match in as many weeks, and the stretch has included the likes of No. 1 Saint Mary’s, No. 3 Lindenwood, No. 5 Utah and Cal. The Wildcats weren’t able to upend either of those three squads, and have dropped a few spots in the Canterbury D1A Top because of the losses. Still, the rigorous schedule has pushed Arizona’s roster, and should benefit them down the stretch of the season.
“Our schedule was loaded up in the front end to really battle test us,” Arizona Head Coach Sean Duffy said. “It’s helped us learn a lot about our players, and it’s helped provide additional lessons for our young team.”
This weekend provides the Wildcats with an opportunity to get back their winning ways, but earning a victory on the road against UCLA won’t come easy.
“UCLA is a well-coached side as Scott Stewart has done a great job, and last year’s game came down to the wire with them beating us, 31-29, on a conversion as time expired,” recalled Duffy. “It was our most exciting game of the year, and we return pretty much most of the guys that had that experience. So, they’re itching for another shot.”
Making Saturday’s task slightly easier is the return of Arizona’s four Junior All-Americans who helped qualify USA for the 2016 World Rugby U20 Trophy by beating Canada Feb. 13.
“We’re thrilled to have them back, but even more thrilled to see them help the USA to a win over Canada,” Duffy said. “Coach [JD] Stephenson did a fantastic job, and all four of our boys have come back better, more confident and more vocal. That being said, it is nice to have them back, and I know they’re excited to be back with their Arizona teammates.”