Utah Warriors: Growing a Rugby Community
Finishing second overall in the West Conference, Utah ended the 2020 season in perhaps the best way possible. On the road in Seattle, Utah beat the two-time champions with a late try from Tyler Fisher. With nearly ninety minutes on the clock by the end, it was the longest match in MLR history.
For Utah, it was an extreme sign of progress with an entirely new coaching staff having been introduced in the fall of 2019. Former Australia international Chris Latham was at the helm of the coaching staff with former Warrior Ben Nicholls as assistant coach, USA assistant coach Shawn Pittman coming in to run the forwards and former Eagles scrumhalf Shaun Davies coaching the backs.
Davies returned to Utah after time away. Playing for the Glendale Raptors in 2018 and 2019, Davies attended Brigham Young University and his wife also comes from the state as well. Winning multiple national championships whilst a student there, it was a fairly easy decision for him to move back.
"The State of Utah rugby has given me so much, so I decided to come back," Davies said. "Utah just has so much talent that needs to be tapped. I am excited to go out there and go to as many different high school teams, as many different college teams in Utah and see what talent we are dealing with. If you look at Maku Unufe in the sevens pool, he is one of the most talented players on the sevens circuit and he comes from Utah. I am trying to unearth as many players like that."
In 2019, Utah had finished eighth overall and looked to be continuously improving in 2020 until Covid-19 put a stop to the league competition. With such a strong rugby pedigree in the State, many believe that the Warriors are not too far away from being able to put together a sustained challenge for the MLR shield.
Forward John Cullen has been with the Warriors since 2018 and like coach Shaun Davies, went to college in Utah. Having attended the University of Utah, Cullen too is aware of the talent in the state's borders. After two years of being 'almost there' Cullen believes that the win against the back-to-back champions was a sign that he and his teammates were heading in the right direction.
"We always had that stigma of the talented team, the exciting team that couldn't win, couldn't win in the last ten minutes, all of those things you hear," Cullen said. "People were saying that we were exciting, fun to watch, had got talent, just not winning. To beat teams, win games ad even though Seattle's record said they had been struggling, for us there were still the two-time champs at home. To pull off a win in the 89th minute was great for us, what we had been building and what we want to continue building."
Prior to the 2020 season of MLR commencing, Chris Latham was highlighted as one of the new faces in the competition. Coming to Utah after having coached professionally in Japan and at the 2019 World Cup as Samoa's backs coach, Latham played for Australia on 78 occasions and won the World Cup with the side in 1999.
With a great pedigree as a player, overseas members of the Warriors roster were extremely aware of who their new head coach is. Cullen believes that Latham has had a great influence on the side, with some of his teammates in awe of their leader.
"He was great," Cullen said. "He was a fresh voice, a fresh perspective. It was a different tone of the same messages that got put out and it just hit with the guys. Everyone bought in, everyone was into it. They believed in him. It is funny, I don't think many of the American players understood who or what Chris Latham is or was. Even myself, I was like 'he was good right?', when everyone else was freaking out.
"The kiwi guys and the Aussie guys when he first showed up, they were like 'wow'. A couple of guys actually got a picture with him, which I always thought was really funny. Pleading ignorance, I knew he was phenomenal, but I wanted to see what he is as a coach."
Davies also believes that Latham has had an extremely positive effect on the side. Still just 30 years old, Davies is at the beginning of his coaching journey at Utah and is able to learn from his head coach.
"It is really enjoyable to work with Chris," Davies said. "He is a really passionate human being and when he played you could see that too. He is really good for the guys and we just feed off that passion and how much he loves the game of rugby. He is definitely getting the most out of the players and they are loving him."
There is still some time between now and 2021, but attentions are starting to turn to the fourth edition of Major League Rugby. Cullen says that he is anticipating the return of professional rugby in North America, with the playing group believing that they were on the road to success prior to the premature finish of the year.
"I am excited," Cullen said. "I think the core group that we have of our local Utah guys and US-based players coming back, is very exciting from their development over the last couple of years. It will build. It's the same thing with the culture that we have pretty much got in place now from that short time last year.
"I am optimistic that we can get all of our guys back and get going in the same direction. The next couple of months are going to be interesting with how things are going to fall into place."
To learn more, visit the Warriors website and check out the team on social media.
Written by Joe Harvey
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Major League Rugby Stories from August 17, 2020
- Utah Warriors: Growing a Rugby Community - Utah Warriors
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