Utah Warriors confident ahead of season opener
HERRIMAN, Utah — Excited, confident and relatively comfortable.
Those were the emotions exhibited by first-year Utah Warriors coach Greg Cooper and Warriors team captain Bailey Wilson as they addressed the media in preparation for Saturday’s round one match versus the San Diego Legion.
The first match of the 2023 Major League Rugby season for the Warriors comes on the heels of a disappointing and tumultuous 2022 campaign which saw the team suffer through a slow start, some tough losses and ultimately a coaching change midway through the season. Leading up to this year, Warriors management has worked earnestly to address what ailed them a year ago, with players confident the necessary changes will yield impressive dividends.
“I wouldn’t say it’s been completely different, but it has been very different,” Wilson said. “The vibes and the energy that the team came in with this year was awesome. The buy-in has been incredible, and a lot of the credit goes to (Cooper) here. The quality of the sessions has been outstanding.”
Cooper was introduced as the Warriors new head coach shortly after the conclusion of the 2022 season, and comes to the organization with a wealth of international experience that he hopes to impart. First and foremost is focusing on the task at hand, which is what looks to be a competitive matchup versus San Diego.
“It’s great to get to round one after six weeks of preparation,” Cooper said. “It’s a short preparation and it’s been very intense… So we’re really excited to be taking on San Diego. We learned a few lessons from them last week and have put that into our practice. So we’re confident we can put up a good performance.”
As for what the Warriors will present this season, there are a lot of familiar faces returning with a mix of impressive newcomers hoping to boost the team’s overall prospects. Starting with the front line, Cooper likes what he’s seen from players such as Olive Kilifi, Paul Mullen, Saia ‘Uhila and Tuvere Vugakoto, among others.
“The starting front row is an all-international front row,” Cooper said. “Our forwards are a proven bunch, so we got a strong scrum and strong carriers.”
Highlighting the mid-row are players such as Jaime Lane, Wilson and Jure Van Vuuren, along with fan-favorite Lance Williams, all of whom Cooper expressed great confidence in.
As for the backs, that’s the position group that has undergone the most changes, with new faces expected to see the bulk of work at both the scrum half and the fly half positions.
“We have a new No. 9 and No. 10 positions starting for us,” Cooper said. “Connor McLeod who I would describe as someone who is the glue. He does all the half back stuff well…So he’s not your flashy player, but he’s like the glue there.”
Manning the No. 10 position will be Joel Hodgson, who comes to Utah after spending significant time playing the English Premier League.
“Joel is the conductor,” Cooper said. “He provides the control that we were looking for.”
The final five positions will be highlighted by Paul Lasike, Joe Mano, Mika Kruse, Caleb Makene and Tyler Fisher, all of whom played significant roles last season for the Warriors.
“I think it’s a pretty well-balanced side,” Cooper said. “I don’t see any obvious weakness there. I think we’re a strong set piece team with the ability to carry hard… So that’s obviously one key strength.”
Utah has been known primarily for its offensive production when having control of the ball, and while Cooper hopes to maintain that level of production, he’s hoping for a better-rounded effort for the 2023 season.
“We’re trying to fix that so we’re not known as a team that attacks well with the ball, but as a team that can also attack without the ball,” he said. “Our mindset is changing.”
As for the San Diego Legion, it’s an opponent very familiar to Wilson and his returning teammates — having forged a good rivalry over the past few seasons. Adding to the rivalry will be some former teammates — most notably former league MVP Mikey Te’o now playing for the Legion.
“It’s super exciting,” Wilson said. “They have a few former teammates of ours over there, so a few familiar faces and a beautiful location. So the boys are really thrilled about this one.”
UTAH WARRIORS VS. SAN DIEGO LEGION
Date: Saturday, February 18
Time: 5:00 PM MST
Where: Snapdragon Stadium, San Diego
The Rugby Alliance Officially Formed: Stade Toulousain and Utah Warriors Unite to Elevate Rugby to New Heights
SALT LAKE CITY (Sept. 21, 2023) – Stade Toulousain, led by President
Largest Scrum in History Bested Guinness World Record after USA Eagles Victory over Stade Toulousain
SALT LAKE CITY (Sept. 17, 2023) – A new Guinness World Record
SANDY, Utah (September 15, 2023) — Five Utah Warriors athletes will pull
Due to Public Demand, Matchup Between the USA Men’s Rugby Team and France’s Stade Toulousain is Rescheduled to Saturday, Sept. 16 at 7 p.m.
SALT LAKE CITY (Aug. 21, 2023) – Due to public demand, the
HERRIMAN, Utah (August 17, 2023) — The Utah Warriors have selected Josh