Utah’s pro rugby team, the Warriors, trying to find its place in a crowded sports landscape

First-year team in first-year league determined to carve out a spot for itself in rugby-centric Utah

(Photo courtesy of Aaron Cornia, Utah Warriors) The Utah Warriors shown here in their inaugural match against the Glendale Raptors on March 30, 2018, at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy.

Lehi • So who are these guys?

They’re the guys who practice as many as three times a day, who gather as the sun begins to brighten the sky every morning to sprint and pass and, when necessary, slam into a teammate to stay technique-sound on their tackling form.

They’re the guys who after an early practice in Provo — one of their three designated training areas along the Wasatch Front — arrive for an interview decked out in black, the logo of their new upstart professional rugby franchise in an upstart league pasted on every piece of team attire.

They’re the guys who look every bit the part as pro rugby players.

Seated on a bench at Thanksgiving Point, just a few miles from Warrior Field, the club’s home training fields, they’re asked what realistic goals are for the Utah Warriors in Salt Lake City-based Major League Rugby.

“It’s not easy building something from the ground level, building it up all at once,” Utah Warriors captain Paul Lasike said. “It’s going to take time. It’s going to take a lot of commitment from the boys.”

That time is now, though.

And the Warriors know it.

There is no sell in sports quite like winning.

With their three preseason matches in the books and having officially started their season with a loss at San Diego last weekend, the Warriors return to their new home Saturday to face the powerhouse rugby program Glendale Raptors. They’ll trot out onto their home turf at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman on Saturday afternoon to start a scrum that now counts.

Warriors coach Alf Daniels chose the job for its challenge, to tap into what he describes as an epicenter of rugby in the United States here in Utah, to piece together something from scratch and try to make it complete. But he refuses to rule out the golden rule.

“If we want to keep our fan base, then we have to start to build a winning culture,” he said. “It’s no different anywhere you go in the world. Your die-hard fans will support you no matter what, but the rest of the community will want to get engaged and interested in a game because they want to see winners.”

So the Warriors, like any first-year franchise, are stuck striking that awkward balance between building for the now and for what lies ahead. Rugby, Daniels says, is a universal language to those who know the game and live for it. While it’s been difficult to mesh together a roster filled with Utahns, players from around the country and the world, the Warriors are riding their wave of first-year momentum.

“Having one common theme of rugby and success has really helped galvanize the guys together,” Daniels said. “Right from Day 1, the energy and intent of the players has been spot on.”

It’s helped, too, that exposure is not difficult to come by.

For any digital subscriber to the new ESPN-plus model online, several MLR matches are broadcast live. While the NBA playoffs wrapped up the first round last weekend, watching the Warriors was also an option. The league has multi-year broadcast deals with both ESPN and CBS Sports. Their first ever home match was played inside Rio Tinto Stadium in late March before nearly 10,000 fans, a spectacle Lasike said he vows to not forget.

“I tried to soak in every moment and enjoy it,” he said. “Not every game is going to be like that in that type of venue.”

(Photo courtesy of Aaron Cornia, Utah Warriors) The Utah Warriors shown here in their inaugural match against the Glendale Raptors on March 30, 2018, at Rio Tinto Stadium in Sandy.

The allure of what Daniels and general manager Kimball Kjar helped build landed another big-name talent in the rugby realm. The franchise announced a few weeks ago the signing of Kurt Morath, who is the all-time leading point scorer for the Tongan national team. Morath recently caught up with Warriors wing/center Fet’u Vainikolo, who told Morath that the setup in Utah was something worth exploring.

All the years Kjar and his team spent dreaming of this weekend, of being able to see a Utah-based rugby organization step out onto a home field where the wins or losses matter in the standings, is here. It’s not lost on players like Lasike, either.

“Rugby here in America is kind of second to a lot of sports,” he said. “A lot of times, you’re finding things on the fly, so it’s really good to have a program set up here.”

Daniels said the Warriors will continue to find that balance, noting that the product on the field is always a must, while also appreciating the rarity of an inaugural season. Because they only happen once.

Becoming a talking point in the crowded Utah sports landscape is something else in its entirety. The Warriors, their coach vows, are getting close.

“It’s right there,” Daniels said. “All of a sudden it’s going to click and we’re going to be a force to be reckoned with, and I don’t think we’re too far away from that.”

GLENDALE RAPTORS AT UTAH WARRIORS <br>When • 1:30 p.m. Saturday <br>Where • Zions Bank Stadium, Herriman