Written by Joe Harvey Photos by Davey Wilson
Thanks to the Utah Warriors’ 47-19 win over the Toronto Arrows, Caleb Makene, and his teammates have a 3-2 record so far in the 2023 Major League Rugby season.
In the midst of his second campaign in Salt Lake City, 26-year-old New Zealander, Makene is aiming for a much brighter season at Zions Bank Stadium.
Last year in 2022, the full-back and his teammates slumped to a 5-11 record in the regular season and failed to make the playoffs.
This year there are new horizons. Among a host of talent that joined a largely settled squad, there has been the introduction of a new head coach, Greg Cooper, and the outlook is bright for one of MLR’s founding clubs.
“I think everyone knew it was an important game,” Makene said of last weekend’s win. “We tried to focus on the things we could be proud of.
“We were pretty disappointed with the NOLA game [37-14 loss], and we still felt like we hadn’t really put a performance together.
“I guess we felt like we didn’t really get things right against Toronto, but we definitely were a step in the right direction.
“The mindset for us is, again, chasing that performance we know we are capable ofbecause we know we haven’t been able to put that out in the first four rounds.”
A NEW VOICE
In the summer, former All Black, Greg Cooper, was unveiled as Utah’s new head coach.
The 57-year-old brings with him some 20 years of professional coaching experience, the New Zealander having coached in his native New Zealand as well as in France and Japan.
Makene was aware of his incoming head coach, but outside of the innate way the countrymen approach the game, the 26-year-old was relatively in the dark about what life under Cooper would look like.
Still, in the early days, the full-back has nothing but praise for Cooper, although the hunt for a well-rounded display on the field is paramount.
“Greg is doing a great job with the boys, and we felt like we had a great preseason,” he said. “We went out to San Diego for a week, and I think that is a little bit of the reason we have been perplexed by the performances.
“We felt prepared going into the season; then, we haven’t quite put it all together yet. I think Greg has done an awesome job getting us all on the same page, and there are a few new faces this year.
“Our challenge is everyone trying to be on the same page. We are really happy with a lot of the stats we are showing in the first weeks of the comp, but the performances haven’t shown it, and the scoreboard hasn’t shown it quite yet. We’re building nicely.”
TAKING ON NEW ENGLAND
Chasing that full 80-minute performance is on the agenda once again as the New England Free Jacks make their way west.
It will be the first time the Free Jacks make their way to Salt Lake City; their three meetings to date have taken place in Nevada or Massachusetts.
Friday’s visitors arrive in Utah having won four of their five games this season and will be looking to further their lead at the top of the Eastern Conference.
“They [New England] are a great team,” Makene said. “They are so well-drilled. We know what to expect this weekend. But, like I said, the focus is on us.
“We are at home; the altitude is obviously a tough one to play in, and it is New England’s first trip here.
“We have got a plan in place. We know they are a well-drilled team, and we are definitely going to respect them a lot, but I think the focus is mostly just on us, chasing that 80 minutes.”
In their recent victory over the injury-stricken Arrows, Utah registered 39 points in the second half, with Makene among the try-scorers and the Man of the Match contenders.
Ultimately it was wing, Joe Mano, who took those honors, along with the MLR Player of the Week thanks to his trio of tries, although Makene’s contribution was invaluable.
He operates in a backline full of talent, the likes of Paul Lasike, Mika Kruse, and Tyler Fisher all offering serious firepower, while the introduction of Joel Hodgson at fly-half has taken the side to a new level.
Add to that a bruising and uncompromising forward pack, it becomes clear that Utah is on the path to success, with Cooper likely to reap the rewards.
Able to call upon seasoned campaigners Lance Williams and Saia ‘Uhila, amongst others, there is much to like.
It all comes down to getting that 80-minute performance, which Makene referenced. There have certainly been glimpses of that second-half performance against the Arrows testament to this.
So, how exactly do Makene and his teammates hope to get everything they planned for out on the field this Friday night?
“I think the big thing we always do; we have confidence in our preparation,” he explained. “We feel like we have had a good week. Everyone is really clear.
“The message from us as leaders, is just to be really confident in our prep, be really confident to go out there, have fun, and play the good footy we know we can. Because we’ve put a lot of work in.
“I think everyone is at the point where we know we can do the job, but just being confident in our preparation. We will just be driving that this weekend; a big focus on us, being able to hold the ball, build phases, be confident in our group, and play the footy we know we can.”
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