Bonus point over Atlanta keeps Utah in playoff spot
HERRIMAN — It’s late in the MLR season, and with bonus points at a premium, an unlikely player came up huge for the Utah Warriors in their 28-12 win over Rugby ATL on Saturday.
With the Warriors leading 21-12, and the four points for the win well in hand, one more point was needed to stay ahead of Houston for third place in the Western Conference standings.
Enter hometown product Tomasi Tonga.
Tonga subbed in late, and finished off the final possession of the evening in dramatic style, touching the ball down in the far corner of the try zone, securing that critical bonus point with the fourth try scored in the match.
“To be able to do this in front of my family and friends — and all these new friends I’ve made in my journey — it’s just amazing,” said an emotional Tonga following the match. “None of this would be possible without (Warriors) Nation. They’re the greatest fans in the MLR.”
Tonga grew up within a mile of Zions Bank Stadium, and has worked earnestly to become a key contributor this season. Although playing time has sometimes been scarce, the Herriman High graduate has kept his nose to the grindstone, and had all of it pay off in a big way on Saturday.
“I’m really pleased for him,” said Warriors coach Greg Cooper. “He’s worked hard to be in the shape he’s in and one thing about Tomasi is that he’s not afraid. I knew he was going to run hard and straight and get involved. So I’m really, really pleased for him.”
Leading up to Tonga’s dramatic try was a stellar defensive stand, leading up to a strong offensive possession that took all 15 players on the field to get it done.
“The defensive effort to keep (Rugby ATL) out, and then turn that around and score was outstanding. It really was,” Cooper said. “It wasn’t a perfect performance, but it was a very good performance against a very good team.”
Utah took control early in Saturday’s match, with Joe Mano touching the ball down in the try zone during the fifth minute for an early 7-0 lead. About 12 minutes later saw Joel Hodgson score a try off an assist from Mano to push the score to 14-0.
Rugby ATL, who is fighting for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, didn’t go down easy, however, and scored a try in the 30th minute to cut the lead to 14-5 after a failed conversion kick.
Calvin Whiting led off the scoring for Utah in the second half, placing the ball down in the 46th minute to build the lead to 21-5 before ATL again responded, this time in the 50th minute to cut the lead to 21-12.
“That was one of our hardest games. Atlanta really came to play,” Cooper said. “…That’s a really good team over there.”
The scoring for both sides came to a halt for almost a full 30 minutes following Rugby ATL’s final try of the evening, before Tonga’s heroics. Tonga took an assist from Mika Kruse, shook off a would-be tackler and then made a straight line for the try zone, narrowly placing the ball down just inside the out-of-bounds line.
“I can’t really explain it. It just happened, you know?,” Tonga said of his try. “You just play like you’re ten years old again outside. It was Mika passing me the ball, and if other guys aren’t running those other lines, then none of what I did was possible.”
With the win, Utah improves to a 9-3 record on the year and secures 43 bonus points, the same as Houston for the final playoff spot with just three games left on the season. Utah owns the tiebreaker, however, having secured one more win on the year than the SaberCats.
Next up for Utah is a critical road match against 2nd-place Seattle Seawolves on June 4 before a final home game at Zions Bank Stadium on June 10. Regular season will then finish off with a match in New York on June 18.
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