Utah Warriors look to build on 2021 Success, Bring MLR Shield to Utah
The news couldn’t have been more welcome for Utah Warriors team captain Bailey Wilson.
Wilson was four years removed from living in Australia, a country where the sport of rugby is king, when the foundation of Major League Rugby was announced in 2018 with his new home state of Utah being granted one of the seven franchises.
“I was over the moon,” Wilson, a graduate from Lone Peak High School recalled. “It’s always been my dream as a kid to play rugby, so to have that opportunity here is really a dream come true. It really couldn’t have worked out much better.”
Wilson seized upon the opportunity, joining the Warriors in 2020, before rising to become one of the team’s prominent players and team captain. The league has also grown since, expanding to its current 13 teams as the league sets to begin the 2022 season.
Wilson now calls the state of Utah his home, and while competing in and growing the sport within the state is a dream come true for him, taking home a league championship would make that dream all the more sweet.
And yes, a championship is a realistic one for the Warriors as they enter the 2022 season. Fresh off a 2021 season, which saw them exceed expectations in the form of a 10 win against just six loss season and a playoff berth, players and coaches believe they’re poised to raise the bar yet again this season.
“The expectations are pretty high,” said Warriors head coach Shawn Pittman. “I think that we have to give ourselves some credit for what we did last year and for what we achieved. So this year we just have to go for a bar above. We can’t just rest on our laurels and be happy.”
𝟐𝟎𝟐𝟐 𝐒𝐞𝐚𝐬𝐨𝐧 🔜 #ForTheNation pic.twitter.com/Jf7JsGUZnX
— Utah Warriors Rugby (@utwarriorsrugby) January 22, 2022
Pittman became head coach of the Warriors in 2021 after the sudden departure of then head coach Chris Latham. He was given the title on an interim status in 2021, although his success in guiding the team to new heights last season, and subsequently being named the MLR’s Coach of the Year, caused for a removal of his interim status.
Pittman has fully embraced his role as head coach, and like Wilson, has found a home in Utah and is excited for the opportunities to grow the sport while improving the team’s product.
“We have high expectations from the community and within the organization,” Pittman said. “I’ve been around for a couple of years now…and it’s a really good community and organization, where guys will go out and do a lot of local events. I love it here. We’ve set some really solid roots down here.”
Established family roots within the community was a big draw for Mike Te’o, who was named as Major League Rugby’s MVP last season.
“I love Utah. My wife has a lot of family here and I have a lot of family in Southern Utah, so we love having that,” Te’o said. “The kids love it and it’s beautiful. It’s great being here and playing some good rugby. We’ve loved all of it.”
Te’o is one of the headliners of a solid and productive group of returning players.
Other top players, along with Te’o and Wilson, includes, but isn’t limited to such names as ‘Olive Kilifi (Washington), Saia ‘Uhila (Tonga), Mika Kruse (California), James Vaifale (Arizona), Calvin Whiting (South Africa), and Jurie Van Vuuren (South Africa.)
Standout newcomers who are expected to make big contributions include such players as Caleb Makene (New Zealand) and Jamie Lane (New Zealand.)
The incoming players have already made an impression on players through preseason practice sessions and workouts.
“The new guys have been unreal,” Wilson said. “They’ve added some great energy to the team and added to the team morale. They’ve already helped us a ton already and that’s only going to continue, we feel.”
As for the focus of the preseason practice session, a lot of it has been focused on improving the team’s overall defense while maintaining and even improving its attack.
“We’re one of the better attacking teams in the league — I’d say top two,” Pittman said. “Our trainer has done some amazing work with our overall fitness. And then our set piece has been top three for a couple of years.”
“The big thing for us is (to improve) our defense,” Pittman continued. “It’s about increasing the pressure we can apply on other teams and consistently doing it. So that has been a big focus of our preparation for the season.”
Should it all come together as planned, it all could make for a very special 2022 season.
“I just want to get better and want to win more games,” Te’o said. “We need to get better defensively — that’s the focus. And if that happens, and we improve like we want to, then I’ll be very happy and we should see greater success because of it.”
League play for the Warriors begins on February 6 on the road versus the San Diego Legion. Utah’s first home match will be when it takes on the Dallas Jackals on March 5. The 16 game season will then conclude on June 4 with the Warriors playing at Dallas. You can get your tickets for Utah’s home opener today.
Brandon Gurney is the Utah Warriors Team Reporter. With Nearly two decades of experience covering BYU Football in print and on radio, Gurney brings a wealth of experience to the Utah Warriors beat. You can read all of Gurney’s stories on the Utah Warriors throughout the 2022 Season at WarriorsRugby.com
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