Utah Warriors Clinch Playoff Spot For First Time Since 2018 Despite Loss
HERRIMAN, Utah — The Utah Warriors clinched a playoff spot for the first time since the 2018 season in front of a sold out Zions Bank Stadium, despite falling to Rugby ATL 41-31 on Saturday night.
The opening minutes went Rugby ATL’s way early as they were able to jump out to an early 7-0 lead thanks to a try by Marko Janse van Rensburg in the fifth minute. ATL continued to own the first 20 minutes of the game as Johan Momsen dotted it down just before the first half water break, taking the 12-0 lead following an unsuccessful conversion.
“I think the biggest thing for us in this game was just our technical detail in certain aspects of the game,” said Warriors Head Coach Shawn Pittman. “We’ve researched different aspects of our team including how we defend in certain areas and things like that, but today we struggled in those areas. I thought our first defensive set was good but we let a try in. But the points that went up quickly were difficult because it forced us into a position where we had to crawl back into the game.”
The Warriors responded quickly following the water break as Utah-native Danny Christensen was able to dot it down for his first career MLR try, bringing the Warriors within five points at the 23’ mark.
Despite Utah stealing some momentum, the ATL attack continued to find themselves with favorable field position as Viliami Helu powered his way into the try zone for another five points for Rugby ATL, giving themselves a 10 point advantage.
With Rubgy ATL threatening inside the Utah five-meter line, the Warriors defense held strong, forcing an ATL knock-on, sending the game into halftime with a score of 17-7.
“I was very upset after the first half because we came in with a plan and we didn’t stick to that plan whatsoever,” said Warriors Assistant Shaun Davies. “So, we knew that they were going to try and hold [our ball carriers] up off the edge and that’s exactly what they did. So, we turned the ball over a few times [early in the game]. We made some adjustments at halftime, which obviously paid dividends because we were able to get that bonus point and qualify for the playoffs.”
Rugby ATL wasted no time putting up points in the second half, with Ross Deacon muscling his way into the try zone for another five points. This time a successful conversion put Rugby ATL up 24-7.
Determined to fight their way back into the game, the Utah Warriors marched downfield and into Rugby ATL territory. With the Warriors threatening at the try line, it was hooker Sama Malolo that found his way into the try zone for a Utah score. An unsuccessful conversion brought the game to 24-12 in the 49th minute.
Following another Rugby ATL try by Ross Deacon, it was Sama Malolo that found the try zone for the second time in the game for the Utah Warriors, bringing the Warriors within 12 points with a score of 31-19.
“We were just [a lot more] intense in the second half when it came to our attack,” said Davies. “In the second half we spoke about holding onto the ball, playing with intensity, concentrating on the details of kicking out and the boys came in and played much better with ball in hand. So, we know as a team that if we hold onto the ball and go through the phases then we will look really good.”
The blazing scoring pace slowed following the second half water break until Rugby ATL was able to break through with a try in the 68th minute to push them ahead 38-19 after the conversion.
With the game out of reach but a playoff spot hanging in the balance if the Warriors could secure the bonus point, Warrior number-2 Saia ‘Uhila powered his way into the try zone for and automatic seven points, and Utah’s fourth try of the game, securing the bonus point and clinching a playoff spot for the Warriors for the first time since 2018.
“It feels good knowing that we are now firmly in the playoffs in the Western Division,” said Pittman. “Reflecting on the game, it’s a tough pill to swallow, losing a game like that. A game that was a very winnable game if we could have eliminated some errors. But it’s obviously a good feeling to know we will be playing in the postseason.”
The Utah Warriors will be back at home next week, Saturday, July 17, as they host Major League Rugby’s top team in the standings, the Los Angeles Giltinis. The match will begin at 6:00 PM MT and will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network.