San Diego State, Utah enter playoff confrontation with plenty of momentum

D1A Rugby: San Diego State, Utah enter playoff confrontation with plenty of momentum
Photo Credit: Bryan Cox (left)

LAFAYETTE, Colo. – Not many teams in college rugby have been playing with the quality of form San Diego State and Utah have in recent weeks. Both teams have been playing their best rugby over the last month of the season and should match up well against one another when they go head to head in San Diego Saturday, April 15, in the opening round of the 2017 D1A Rugby Playoffs.

Coming off a season that took them to the National Quarterfinals, many were a bit surprised with the results the Utes produced in the beginning of the fall. Shifting from members of the West Conference to solely the PAC Rugby Conference, Utah used its fall campaign to test younger players. The outcome was a few less-than-flattering results, including losses to Air Force and Colorado State by a combined 56 points.

“Having a fall season has helped our younger guys take ownership of their contributions,” said Utah Head Coach Jon Law. “Purely from a repetition standpoint, it’s benefitted the individual players’ skill sets, as well as game sense. We see this now as more players are making better decisions in match play.”

Any trepidation over a couple of September defeats began to ease as Utah collected wins in October over the likes of Colorado, Utah State and others. The squad that re-assembled after the New Year proved more competent than the group finding mixed results in the fall, and demonstrated it had grown up when it went to Los Angeles and smashed UCLA, 49-8.

San Diego State’s spring season has been a gradual crescendo that has seen the Aztecs begin the year barely cracking the Top 20 to now being firmly seeded within the top 10 of Canterbury’s weekly rankings. A friendly versus Cal Poly in January was barely won by San Diego State, which was followed by a loss to No. 3 BYU, but the Aztecs fronted well against a top-level opponent. After the defeat to the Cougars, the Aztecs won seven of their final eight games, with the only defeat coming on the road to No. 1-ranked Saint Mary’s.

The opening round playoff foes do share one common opponent on the season – Arizona. San Diego State welcomed Arizona to Southern California with a 30-12 beating in February, while Utah’s final game of the regular season came against the Wildcats. The Utes hosted Arizona the final weekend of March, and beat their PAC rivals, 53-3, in a rematch of a 2016 D1A Rugby Playoff game.

Utah’s 50-point win was played in very cold and wet conditions, and while the scoreboard indicates the Utes played a comprehensive 80 minutes to end their conference season, the team still feel it hasn’t yet played its best rugby.

“We didn’t play our highest quality of rugby in shifting the ball into space and running great support lines, but our tackling was sure, our defensive shape was sound and we handled the ball well in difficult weather,” Law mentioned of the win against the Wildcats. “We did show our greatest mental and physical toughness, which is something our players expect to carry on.”

Aside from the win over Arizona, San Diego State can also boast a Top 20 nonconference victory at 10th-ranked Army’s expense. The team’s willingness to challenge itself outside of the California Conference schedule and ability to come out the better team in those fixtures should have the Aztecs better prepared for Utah’s playoff visit, as compared to the San Diego State that fell to Davenport in the opening round of the 2016 D1A Rugby Playoffs.

“The schedule we played this season certainly taught us what it takes to compete at a high level and the close matches helped us develop some grit,” explained San Diego State Head Coach Alex Lichtig. “It also served to prove that no matter the opponent, if we focus on our systems and maximizing our performance we can compete with anyone.”

The Aztecs’ preparation for playoffs went far beyond nonconference opposition. Ninth-ranked San Diego State departed the United States for Georgia, where a week-long tour ensued. The team played well and stayed healthy, looking sharp upon its return when it took down Cal Poly, 41-14.

“The tour of Georgia was something special. It was great to take the guys out of their element as a team and just enjoy a unique shared experience,” Lichtig said.

Both San Diego State and Utah seem to be peaking at the right moment, so who has the upper hand? Each squad possesses strong front rows. Aztecs Johnny Abdulahad, Adahir Aguilera and Gil Covey have had a lot of reps together and are a formidable unit. Meanwhile, Utah might have college rugby’s best hooker in its side in Chad Gough, who scrums down next to workhorse prop Dylan Coggins.

The Utes might find an advantage along its back row, though. Levi Hunt and Caleb Meyer are tough and skilled flankers, while All-American eight man Gabe Ruflin is a sideline-to-sideline difference maker.

San Diego State is well-balanced 1-15, but it’s hard not to notice the talent it holds in the back line. Scrum half Esmat Wardak initiates an attack that could see the likes of Ari Flink, Nicolas Lupian, Austin Switzer or Jacob Zinda break the line at any moment.

“San Diego State seems to really like utilizing the full width of the pitch,” Law determined. “They probe channels well, extend phases well and have some guys with excellent pace. We’ve put a lot of work into functional training sessions to solve particular problems they present. We’re prepared, now must execute and communicate.”

As proud of the balance between backs and forwards San Diego State has been able to contrive, it’s preparing to play a team capable of outrunning and out-muscling its opposition.

“We know Utah is a skilled and tactical side that can cause a lot of trouble all around the pitch,” complimented Lightig. “We’re looking forward to an 80-minute grind featuring a bit of speed and physicality.”

The opening round playoff fixture will kickoff from San Diego at 1 p.m. PT and will be available to watch on YouTube. The winner between San Diego State and Utah will play Saint Mary’s Saturday, April 22, in the D1A Rugby Quarterfinals.