Utah overcomes Arizona’s fast start, beats Wildcats

D1A Rugby: Utah overcomes Arizona’s fast start, beats Wildcats
Photo Credit: Henry O'Keefe

BOULDER, Colo. – Utah opened its PAC Rugby Conference season with a visit to Tucson, Ariz., and fought its way out of a 16-point hole to earn a quality road win over the Wildcats.

After yielding a penalty goal in the early goings, Arizona got itself on the front foot and converted opportunities into tries. The half back combo of Jonah Eldridge and Kyle Rogers each got beyond the end line, as did freshman No. 8 Tyler Hansen.

“I think we were able to string together phase ball and do some good things in attack because we’re finally starting to show patience and a better understanding of ball speed and the options available to us,” said Arizona Head Coach Sean Duffy.

The tide began to turn towards the end of the first stanza, as Utah began to piece together phases, and eventually put All-American hooker Chad Gough away for the try to make the score 19-8 in favor of Arizona at halftime.

“We hit gaps more effectively and retained possession better, but still failed to take full advantage of the opportunity,” explained Utah Assistant Coach Jon Law. “Having seen that, the players did play with more confidence, especially as it relates to the new player combinations.”

The momentum swing may have lit a fire under the less experienced Utes, but Utah’s best individual players did more than their share. Gough would notch a second try following intermission, and Benji Mills added one of his own.

“There was a moment in the first half that Chad Gough simply took over, and exerted himself as the most dominant player on the field,” complimented Law. “Gabe Rufflin played with impressive range and intensity. Taylor Thomas, nursing in injury, set up some nice movements on attack, but really declared himself defensively. We were also very happy with the way Josh Webber directed things from the fly half position.”

An already tight ballgame at 32-26, Eldridge dotted down for a second time to bring the Wildcats within a point. Arizona continued to apply pressure, but the hard work to get itself in the red zone didn’t equate to points.

“We had two to three opportunities to potentially win the game, and a combination of stout Utah defense and our inability to execute ultimately sealed it,” said Duffy.

A turnover by the Wildcats allowed Utah to quickly move the ball into Arizona territory, and Webber’s try squashed the host’s final attempt at a comeback, 39-31.

The loss surely stung for the Wildcats, but is just another 80-minute lesson that will harden a young Arizona team that saw only two seniors take the pitch.

“In D1A, even if you throw the first blow, from a figurative perspective, the good teams like Utah will throw a counter punch, and you need to be able to handle it and ideally thrown one of your own,” Duffy said. “We will continue to stay the course, learn from this game, and we’re onto New Mexico this weekend at home.”

The journey for the fifth-ranked Utes gets harder as they travel to play No. 1 Saint Mary’s Jan. 30 before getting back into their PAC Rugby schedule against Arizona State Feb. 6.