WRITTEN BY JOE HARVEY PHOTOS BY DAVEY WILSON
In 2021, the Utah Warriors made their way to the Western Conference Final. Losing in the final minutes of the game as the LA Giltinis’ scored late through Ryan James, there was plenty of optimism surrounding one of Major League Rugby’s founding sides.
But the season that followed did not live up to that optimism. Instead, the side missed out on the playoffs with a 5-11 record and parted ways with reigning Coach of the Year, Shawn Pittman.
With the 2023 season several months away, Major League Rugby heard from the team’s General Manager, Brandon Sparks, and one of their star players, Lance Williams, about why there is a cause for optimism once again at Zions Bank Stadium.
LEARNING FROM 2022
“Point blank, it was extremely disappointing,” Sparks said. “Especially coming off the year that we had. With that said, there were some red flags at the end of 2021 that we worked hard on in the off season to address or we thought we had addressed. But were clearly not.
“If we didn’t fix some mistakes, it was going to be exposed in a pretty public way, which was a losing season. That is what happened. It gave us a clear roadmap of where we needed some more experience and what was working and what wasn’t working as it relates to the development pathway and recruitment.
“It is easy to look back and find the silver linings now, but I won’t lie; 2022 was the toughest year I have had in professional rugby.”
Beginning their season with three consecutive losses, it was clear that the Warriors were struggling to find the same form that propelled them to the postseason just 12 months prior.
Parting ways with head coach Shawn Pittman in early April, the team turned to assistant coaches Shaun Davies and Robbie Abel to lead the team until the end of the season.
Ultimately finishing their 16-game season on a high, with three wins in their last five games, showed that there was still a spark at Zions Bank.
A key player for the Warriors since 2018, Lance Williams had perhaps his finest season of professional rugby to date. At 29, the back-row forward reached 50 MLR caps and made the All-MLR First Team.
Making over 1,000 meters with the ball in hand and 173 tackles, Williams’ performances were a high in an otherwise disappointing year for a team that had such upside coming out of 2021.
“It was just a rollercoaster, but that is just the way it goes,” Williams said. “We can’t just sit down and moan about it. We have just got to get our head down and get to work, get ready for the next season.
“Let’s just get to work, get prepared for next season, and get the ball rolling. It was just a rollercoaster, inconsistent, but the boys really had the culture and strived to still finish the season strong.”
Photo by Davey Wilson
For the team’s GM, it was a hard season of learning. However, much of the knowledge gained in 2022 is already being implemented in preparation for the new 2023 season, still several months away.
This includes the appointment of Greg Cooper as head coach of the team, the former All Black bringing with him two decades’ worth of professional coaching experience from New Zealand, France, and Japan.
With extensive experience, Cooper will not only aid the MLR side but will be heavily involved with developing the pathway from grassroots to the professional game in the state he now calls home. This will echo much of his work during his time with Green Rockets Tokatsu and Mitsubishi Sagamihara Dynaboars, where he was influential in creating similar links and was a major reason that the 57-year-old was hired.
“I was surprised to see the quality of candidates that came in,” Sparks said when speaking about the search for a new head coach. “Greg has an incredibly impressive resume, but that was kind of a reoccurring theme with who was applying.
“What really drew us to Greg was his experience in Japan. Which is what I feel like a lot of MLR is going through and about to go through. That experience is really going to help us as we grow as an organization and as we grow as a league.
“Greg is very aligned with our developmental mindset, trying to be the North American epicenter of rugby. He gets that vision, and he is contributing to that vision.”
In addition to the appointment of Cooper as head coach, there is the appointment of the team’s first-ever High-Performance Director. Ian Gibbons has a wealth of experience after time spent with Saracens and Scarlets in the UK, as well as numerous national sevens teams and working with MLR teams, the Seattle Seawolves and San Diego Legion, and it is clear that this is a team with much ambition to improve.
This can even be seen in playing recruitment. Perhaps the headline act in new arrivals at Herriman is Joel Hodgson. At 30, the fly-half brings with him ten seasons of professional rugby and has made over 100 appearances for Newcastle Falcons will be hoping to guide the exciting Utah backline to success next year.
Photo by Davey Wilson
“What we are getting is exactly what we need, which is an experienced hand, who has been in multiple environments that were extremely high level,” Sparks said.
“That is going to progress, not just the on-field product, but the players around him as well. The thing that really appealed to us with Joel was the fact that he was coaching at Newcastle University as well as playing for Newcastle [Falcons].
“That is important for us here, where guys are still learning how to be professional, some are still learning to play rugby in a different environment. I think that he personifies what Utah is.
“While he is a successful player, all of that success has come through sheer hard work and determination. That is who we are. We are scrappy. We are a small market team, and we know anything that comes our way, we are going to have to work really hard to achieve.”
BACK FOR MORE
Drafting five players in the 2022 MLR Collegiate Draft, four of which have played in the Collegiate Rugby Shield that was staged on Utah’s doorstep, Sparks has also acquired Jonah Dietenberger from San Diego Legion, while Mikey Te’o has returned to Southern California.
Williams was the first player to have been announced as re-signing with the Warriors for the 2023 season. In the following weeks, Saia Uhila and Jurie van Vuuren have similarly pledged their futures to Salt Lake City for at least another season.
Having been with Utah for significant periods of the team’s existence to date, each wants to contribute significantly to a Championship push with the Warriors.
“I don’t think I could even say the amount of blood, tears, and time I have put into the organization and to built good foundations here,” Williams said.
“Not only myself. Guys like Angus MacLellan and Saia Uhila have put a great foundation there in that organization and put in the time and work to stay there for five years and get the 50 caps and stuff.
“The fans are unbelievable. Win or lose, the amount of support there, the fans, and the foundation is unbelievable. It means a lot to me, and with the love and support they show; I want to win one for Utah.
“They have all my love and appreciation. That is the reason I wanted to come back to Utah. They say once you are a Warrior, you are always a Warrior. It is a great decision for me.”
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