Utah, Arizona clash for second place in PAC

D1A Rugby: Utah, Arizona clash for second place in PAC
Photo Credit: Henry O'Keefe

The hunt for the D1A Playoffs races on in the PAC Rugby Conference this weekend when No. 12 Utah hosts No. 14 Arizona. In a poetic sense it is an appropriate meeting between two squads that met last year in the D1A Quarterfinals.

The winner will take control of second place in the conference behind No. 4 Cal, and better position for a D1A Playoff bid. It feels like a must-win situation. As wins and rankings becoming more and more pivotal as May approaches, both PAC teams come into this game preparing with postseason mentality.

Both clubs come into this weekend with two losses against ranked opponents on the year. Cal bested each of them, while Arizona was defeated by No. 8 San Diego State, and Utah lost to No. 2 Saint Mary’s.

Utah, meanwhile, hold a perfect 7-0 record against Arizona since 2011. The Wildcats in particular feel confident in avenging their playoff defeat last year with a loading young recruiting class that has highlighted their spring schedule.

“We make no excuses for last year but being a young team, we were missing some very key players to the Junior World Trophy with the MJAA team,” Arizona head coach Sean Duffy said. “Those guys being back, coupled with our veterans, and a very strong Freshmen class that’s really grown up in the last two weeks means we are coming into this excited about the possibility.”

The Utes, concurrently, have put history in the dust, and whose core upperclassmen have helped carve an impressive 2017 season thus far.

“This is a very forward-looking group.  We haven’t thought much about last season or last year’s playoffs,” Utah head coach Jon Law commented. “We don’t really know what our postseason looks like at the moment, so we are treating everything from this point forward as playoff rugby.  It’s added a bit of an edge to everything we do.”

Law noted the team’s communication was the biggest factor in last week’s 83-21 victory over Utah State. It was also good opportunity to pull together a complete 80 minutes, something that Law knows will be even more important on Saturday.

“We need to play to our strengths and not get sucked into their style of play,” Law added. “Arizona has assets we don’t have. We have assets they don’t have, so I believe the key will be to remain composed, intense, and disciplined, yet react quickly when things go off-script.”

Currently on a three-game winning streak like their counterpart, Duffy echoed similar traits regarding what will be most critical for Arizona to display on the pitch in order to walk off with a ‘W’.

“We have momentum for sure, but this is a good team we’re facing. We bring back the vast majority of last yea’s team so they’ve learned from that experience last year, and have learned to play a full 80 against quality opposition,” Duffy mentioned. “We want to finish, execute under pressure, and hopefully we end up on the right side of this.”

That starts with captain Kyle Rogers, who has taken his leadership to the next level this spring according to Duffy. He has expanded into a Swiss army knife on the field taking on multiple roles and it showed last week’s 62-12 win against Notre Dame. Rogers tallied two tries in that game alongside fullback San Pietro trio of touchdowns. There is also sophomore Ryan Fitzpatrick who has continued to display strong form since his January PAC Player of the Month honors.

“Our backline is starting to get some continuity which at this time of year is huge,” Duffy added. “Teams that play hard do okay in March. Teams that play hard and are on the same page do great. We want to be great.”

For Utah, seven individual players scored in the first half last game, including Kelsin Pupunu who has transferred his experience with the MJAA team with his Ute teammates well.

“Kelsin is a constant student of the game and a very hard worker. He began this season as a good rugby player and his development since January has been considerable,” said Law. “I think the most significant thing he took away from his time with the MJAAs was a snapshot of how he compares with other athletes in his age bracket and what he must do to get to the next level.”

Law also praised the play of hooker Chad Gough recently on his ability to get on the scoreboard, as well as perfect tackling last game. Combined with the recent offensive prowess of fly half Josh Webber, the upperclassmen will play a big role in helping execute on the pitch.