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RFCLA Defeat Utah Warriors in Nail-Biter at Home for First Win

March 28, 2024 - Major League Rugby (MLR)
Rugby FC Los Angeles News Release

Rugby Football Club Los Angeles (RFLCA) came into their match against the Utah Warriors on March 24 hoping for their first win of the season.

RFCLA had a 2-2 record against the Warriors since the club was created as Rugby ATL in 2020. The Warriors were 1-2 this season; RFLCA were 0-3.

RFCLA knew their kicking game would be crucial. In spite of gusty winds of 20-30 mph at Dignity Health Sports Park in Carson, California, RFCLA didn't change their game plan. An RFCLA attempt to kick while the Warriors tried to gather it earned the Warriors a penalty. Warriors fly-half Joel Hodgson (No. 10) kicked the ball into touch near the RFLCA 30-meter line.

Having won the lineout, the Warriors spun it out to the backs, and outside center Mika Kruse (No. 12) tipped the moving ball out to the wing to his brother Isaia Kruse (No. 14), who took it to the corner before diving in for the try. The TMO ref supported the on-field ruling by referee Cisco Lopez, and the try stood. Utah fly-half Joel Hodgson missed the conversion, as the wind took it wide to the left. In the 6th minute: Utah led RFCLA 5-0.

Utah continued to punish RFCLA, and in the 8th minute, RFCLA lock Yurie Van Vuuren (No. 4) showed his frustration by making contact with his opponent's head in the tackle. Lopez gave him a yellow card - ten minutes in the sin bin.

Down one player, RFCLA took another hit when lock Reagan O'Gorman (No. 5) had to be wrapped up for an injury. No. 19 Max Kajijeko, normally a flanker, came on to replace him.

In the 11th minute, referee Lopez reprimanded RFCLA for "something silly" - a cheap elbow shot to a player's back -noting to the captains that he didn't want to call penalties for little mistakes. Throughout the match he would urge both teams to "use" the ball quickly coming out of rucks and mauls as well as set pieces.

Just moments later, RFCLA wing Andrew Coe (No. 14) intercepted a Utah pass and with two unmarked teammates outside him, bolted across the line for his third try of the season. "He read that one like a book," said commentator Mike Petri. RFCLA fly half Dan Hollinshead (No. 10) converted the try and in the 13th minute, RFCLA led 7-5.

In the 14th minute, RFCLA scrum half Niall Saunders (No. 9), who once played for Utah, showed his frustration with referee Lopez when he failed to use the ball coming out of the scrum in time, waiting instead for a clear opportunity to kick. Coming into the match, RFCLA had planned to kick strategically, and in the first half it was mostly Saunders who took on the task instead of Hollinshead, kicking tactically up the field in spite of the wind.

Following a Hodgson kick into touch inside RFCLA's five-meter line,, Utah looked poised to capitalize. But the wind appeared to take the ball as it was thrown in, and the referee ruled the throw was not straight. "Another blown opportunity," said commentator Petri.

A courageous run by Saunders from deep inside RFCLA territory brought the ball out to the halfway line, and in the 17th minute, it looked like RFCLA would survive being a man down as Van Vuuren prepared to return to the pitch after serving his 10 minutes. A break by RFCLA flanker Semi Kunatani drew a penalty from Utah, and Hollinshead found himself in a position to kick for goal. A strong kick put RFCLA ahead 10-5 in the 19th minute, as the teams took their first water break.

Saunders continued to control the tempo with his high kicks, and RFCLA managed to retain possession (80 percent to Utah's 20 percent at the 20 minute mark). The wind continued to affect both teams' lineouts and their kicking game, but Saunders managed to direct his with more accuracy than Hodgson.

In the 25th minute, with his backs lined up as if prepared to run it, Saunders went to the blindside, broke a tackle, and brought the ball close to their opponent's try line. A few short runs by the forwards (known as pick and go's) created the necessary pressure for No. 8 Jason Damm to take the ball over for the try. Hollinshead converted the try, and after 29 minutes, RFCLA led 17-5.

Off the restart, Hollinshead made a risky long punt for territory, but it ended up rolling out of the try zone. "There was way too much hot sauce on that one," said commentator Petri. It also gave away possession, which RFCLA had controlled 61 percent of. Utah had made 53 tackles to RFCLA's 25, in part due to RFCLA's control of the ball.

In the 31st minute, Hodgson took a penalty from about 30 meters out, bringing Utah to within nine, 17-8.

Saunders continued to dominate, with the help of both his forwards and backs, But after a breakaway run in the 32nd minute, Utah scrum half Kieran McClea (No. 9) grabbed the ball out of Saunders' hands near his own try line and made a bolt to the halfway line before being chased down by RFCLA flanker Max Katjijeko (No. 19).

A penalty in the 35th minute by Van Vuuren for pushing a player off the ball during a ruck would give the momentum back to Utah. From his own 40 meter line, Utah's Hodgson would pass to wing Joe Mano (No. 11) who broke through, and with two stiff- arms - one to Saunders - Utah had another try. Hodgson's kick went wide to the left. RFCLA led 17-13 at the half, and had conceded 7 penalties to Utah's 2.


Coming into the second half, RFCLA kept the ball closer to the scrum, using the forwards to gain more territory. A run by Saunders to the blind side followed by a chip kick by Coe in the 42nd minute brought RFCLA to the Utah 5-meter-line, where prop Alex Maughan (No. 1) threw a pass to Hooker Bruce Kaukia- Peterson (No. 2) who took it over the line for the try. The TMO referee upheld the on-field decision by referee Lopez. Hollinshead converted the try and RFCLA led 24-13.

Hollinshead's frustration with the wind - and some of the touch judge calls about where the ball went out - wouldn't stop his kicking game, as he repeatedly brought RFCLA back into Utah's 22 in the second half. But Utah managed to shift the momentum and hold RFCLA off.

Saunders continued to make breaks for the Utah line, but the RFCLA forwards couldn't get across with their pick and go's. Still, they kept up the pressure."You'd never guess they were winless," commentator Petri said.

In the 49th minute, RFCLA's strategy of keeping the ball close to the pack with short runs paid off, and following a penalty on the Utah 5-meter-line, Kunatani took it over with a little help from his pack. "LA [is] on fire," said commentator Ben Holden in the 48th minute.

In the 50th minute RFCLA replaced scrum-half Saunders with No. 21 Tas Smith, part of a pre-planned strategy. Utah prop Paul Mullen came on for Prior; Utah hooker Nic Souchon replaced Bradford.

RFCLA flanker Matt Heaton, who leads Major League Rugby in tackles with 52 (an average of 17 per match) continued to apply pressure as he had done throughout the match. "He's non-stop," said Petri. "He's always ready to play," added Holden.

Utah wasn't ready to give up though. After a kick for touch by Hodgson took Utah near the RFCLA 5-meter -line in the 54th minute, substitute lock Onehunga Havili took the ball over for a try in the corner. Again, the wind proved too much for Hodgson and Utah could only narrow RFCLA's lead to 31-18. But RFCLA, with 10 penalties by that point, was not in the clear. "Utah need more of that to climb back in the game," said Petri.

A try by Utah in the 56th minute brought the Warriors to 31-18 (Hodgson missed the conversion), and RFCLA continued to concede costly penalties, allowing the Warriors to stay in the game. RFCLA managed to stave off a try by keeping the Utah player in the try zone off the ground in the 62nd minute.

RFCLA finally broke through the Utah defense again in the 68th minute as substitute scrum-half Tas Smith (No. 21) took the ball to the blind side and took advantage of a three-on-one situation to send Coe across the try line. Hollinshead missed the kick; RFCLA led 36-18.

Not to be counted out, Utah kept up the pressure until the final whistle, as prop Prior Emerson and hooker Phil Bradford pushed across for a try in the 74th minute. Hodgson converted the kick to bring it to 36-25. A breakaway run by Utah in the final minute resulted in another try, this time by full-back Mica Manson.

Hodgson's successful conversion with under a minute to go proved to be too little too late, and RFCLA held on for the win, 36-32.

Both teams now have a 1-3 record. RFCLA will travel East to face Old Glory DC on April 6, returning home to face the Seattle Seawolves on Sunday, April 14 at 3 PM.

* *

After the match, RFCLA wing Andrew Coe praised his teammates for their combined efforts and ability to adapt to both the wind and Utah's resilience. "In a tight game like that, you have to rely on everyone, and roll with who is doing well at the time," he said. "It's 15 guys putting in an effort to score."

RFCLA's game is showing signs of coming together, Coe said. "It's always hard when you start a team, but we're starting to get that confidence."

"It's exciting."

He played down his try and try-making plays, saying his key interception early on was a "mixture" of luck and timing. "It kind of fell in my lap," he said. "As a winger, that's what I'm brought in for," he said.

Scrum half Niall Saunders, who came off the field in the 50th minute as part of the RFCLA game plan, took over a lot of the kicking duties from fly-half Dan Hollinshead against Utah simply because of where the ball happened to be positioned. Saunders is left-footed and Hollinshead is right-footed. The planned kicking strategy didn't change because of the winds at Dignity Health Sports Park. "It wasn't ideal," Saunders said. "[But] we knew they wanted to run, so we tried to make them overplay and get the lineouts." Saunders was happy with RFCLA's ability to win lineouts in spite of the winds, and was "happy with [the] scrum." As for his backs, "anyone in the league would agree our backs are some of the best attacking backs in the league," he said.

"If we'd just limited our penalties, we'd have won more games [so far]," Saunders added, acknowledging that this cost RFCLA against Utah. RFCLA need to "work on discipline."

Saunders said, "In games like this, we let teams back in the game with penalties and let them gain back momentum."

RFCLA General Manager Mark Carney said he was particularly pleased with the home crowd today. "Our boys are really appreciative of our fans. They definitely feed off the energy and we really felt it today."

"The crowd noise made a massive difference. You could see that in the game."

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