Written by Joe Harvey | Photos by Davey Wilson
Shawn Pittman’s time as the Utah Warriors’ Interim Head Coach came to an end in dramatic fashion.
Playing the LA Giltinis at the LA Memorial Coliseum in the Western Conference Final, it took two late tries from Ryan James to sink the Warriors, who had dominated for much of the second half in California.
When James crossed in the 77th minute, it is hard to believe that the Warriors felt anything other than heartbreak in the days that followed.
Now back with the USA Eagles on the hunt for Rugby World Cup qualification, the 2021 MLR Coach of the Year discussed a year like no other in his career to date.
THE INTERIM HEAD COACH
Unlike a lot of his contemporaries, throughout the 2021 season Pittman was the Interim Head Coach.
Parachuted into the role after Chris Latham had decided not to return to Utah, citing family reasons, Pittman led Utah to second in the Western Conference and within a whisker of reaching the Final.
Playing an attaching brand of rugby, Pittman was not alone in receiving postseason recognition, with full-back Mike Te’o the recipient of the Player of the Year Award.
Registering 70 tries over the course of the season, second-most to LA who scored 85, combining a strong set piece with clinical finishing that ran their opposition ragged.
Working alongside Shaun Davies and Matt Maddison to coach the squad over the duration of the season, Pittman says that without them he wouldn’t have taken on the role in the first place.
“I got called and was asked to come to a meeting,” Pittman said when recounting his appointment as Interim Head Coach. “I just thought it was weird. It was in the midst of the pandemic, so I thought that the season was getting cancelled or something like that.
“When they initially asked, I asked who I had (to work with) and they said I had Matt Maddison and Shaun Davies, Brandon Sparks as General Manager and all of the support staff.
“I don’t think I would have taken it if it weren’t for individuals like Shaun and Matt there to help support and drive the program in a really positive direction and on the front foot moving into next year.
“The first thing we did, Matt, Shaun and myself, was sit down and went over all the responsibilities, so nothing fell through the cracks. Shaun and I did the set piece and the breakdown, and I did defense. We missed some things and in the end of year review, we put those things at the front of what we are trying to do next year.”
REACHING THE PLAYOFFS
For the first time since 2018, Utah reached the playoffs. Losing out to the Glendale Raptors that year, 2019 was a far from perfect year for the Warriors, winning just two games and drawing two more.
As we all probably remember, there was very little that can be told from the five games played in 2020, Utah secured a place in the postseason with a game to spare in 2021.
For Pittman, it was an achievement that was unexpected, particularly when given the short turnaround between his appointment as Interim Head Coach and the start of the regular season.
“When we reached a point where we were guaranteed to be over .500 winning record, that was a bit surreal because we took over literally two weeks before the season really started,” Pittman explained.
“Chris wasn’t there, and Chris laid really good foundations the year before, especially culture-wise, so when we took over our goal was to be above .500 and when we reached that, we couldn’t believe it.
“We had a really good shot of actually making it to the final, which would have been amazing from a team, who in past years have been massive under-performers for the individuals that they had.”
A BUSY COUPLE OF DAYS
The day that Pittman was announced as the MLR Coach of the Year, it was also the day that Utah announced that the 33-year-old would be taking on the mantel of Head Coach on a full-time basis.
Having stepped up and delivered in a tight spot, Pittman was rightly rewarded for his efforts in 2021. Such a busy period in his life, the former Eagle says that he thought it was a ‘joke’ when Brandon Sparks rang to tell him the news.
“I signed it (his contract to be Head Coach) and then a couple of days later, I got a phone call from my GM saying that the paperwork was finalized and all that stuff, but then he said I was going to be announced as the Coach of the Year.
“I didn’t know if it was a joke, because we didn’t make the final. I thought that both Scott (Lawrence, Rugby ATL) and Darren (Coleman, LA Giltinis) both did phenomenal jobs with their programs, so I felt pretty lucky to get it.
“I spoke to our staff right after, and I had to say that this award is all of ours. I know my name was on it, but we all did it. That week was just hectic for me and my family, because it was just one thing after the other, it was pretty emotional.
“It was just a tidal wave of responsibility, so hopefully we can achieve the same thing this year with our team and put ourselves in a place to reach the final next year.”
GETTING TO FRANCE
Following his successes with Utah, Pittman returned to the Eagles setup to work as the team’s forwards coach.
Helping the side to a 50-59 aggregate win over Canada and to a 19-16 win over Uruguay last weekend, all that stands between the USA and a place at the Rugby World Cup in France is a win this weekend in Montevideo.
The importance of qualification is clear, giving the team the chance to develop more and more across a two-year period, but there is an even greater carrot ahead of Gary Gold’s Eagles.
Qualifying at the first time of asking could well be a way to improve the USA’s chances of hosting either the 2027 or 2031 World Cup, a feat that is not lost on Pittman.
“I think that, especially with our name being thrown in the pot to host a Rugby World Cup, we have the ability to get this done and dusted with an aggregate win over Uruguay,” Pittman said.
“It would put us in a good spot to hopefully get us hosting and that is what we as a nation really need to put us in a good spot to hopefully get us hosting and that is what we as a nation need to put us on the front foot moving forwards.
“We are still a developing nation in rugby, so if we have the ability to host, sponsorships will come, all of these things will come and that will only help us grow the game for the future and will be to the benefit of USA Rugby.
“Qualification is massive for us.”
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