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Late spurt leads Utah Warriors into postseason with 31-27 win over Houston


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HERRIMAN — Tonata Lauti has scored eight tries in the inaugural season of Major League Rugby, more than any other player in the league.

Nobody was better than No. 8.

Lauti scored two tries, and the Utah Warriors overcame a 17-12 halftime deficit to rally by the Houston Sabercats 31-27 and clinch the final berth in the Major League Rugby championship series Saturday afternoon at Zions Bank Stadium in Herriman.

"The boys did all the hard work, and I get the glory, I guess," Lauti said. "The boys ran good lines, kept the defense and it opened up the side for me."

No matter the glory, the Zions Bank Stadium-high crowd of 4,175 fans went into a frenzy.

"The energy was good. The fans were awesome," Lauti said. "When I play, everything goes quiet—but then it stops when the ball is dead and I scored. To hear the roaring fans and the support from the community was great; I couldn’t do it without them."

The Warriors (3-5) also grabbed a bonus point for scoring more than four tries, clinching the No. 4 seed in the postseason and a semifinal match against the Seattle Seawolves.

The previously unbeaten Raptors will host the semifinals next Saturday, also involving second-place Seattle and San Diego, which clinched the No. 3 seed with a 23-5 win over a shorthanded Glendale side late Saturday night.

And now, thanks to some late magic by Lauti and former Colorado State defensive lineman Alex Tucci, the Utah Warriors will join them. The Herriman-based side only beat one other team in the regular season outside of a pair of home-and-away wins over the Sabercats, but the 21 points will be enough for a playoff bid.

"That's what we are in this competition for," said Warriors coach Alf Daniels, referring to the playoffs. "We started a little bit late, with only three exhibition games, and we knew it was going to be tough. It’s taken a little while, but from week-to-week, the guys have been progressing and developing well.

"It's good to finish on a win and a win that takes us to the semifinal next week."

Lauti bookended the Warriors’ postseason-clinching victory. The former University of Utah right wing opened the scoring just 10 minutes into the match, streaking down the left sideline to give the Warriors a 7-0 lead early.

But the lead didn’t last long.

Houston flyhalf Sam Windsor scored 12 points in the first half, including a stoppage-time try to give the Sabercats a 17-12 halftime lead.

"We were a little jittery on the ball," Daniels said. "But the boys felt good at halftime, and we didn’t give away any tries in the second half. We just knew we had to stick to our game and play 80 minutes of rugby — or maybe 82. But we held in there until the end, and I’m really proud of them."

Photo: Aaron Cornia, Utah Warriors
Photo: Aaron Cornia, Utah Warriors

Windsor, the league’s leading scorer, and former BYU flanker Ara Elkington helped the two sides exchange the lead early in the second half before the Sabercats took a 27-19 advantage with just over 10 minutes remaining.

That’s when Tucci happened.

The former Ram scored a picture-perfect "fat-guy touchdown" after taking a pass from Elkington for a try under the crossbar with 10 minutes remaining to pull the Warriors within one, 27-26.

"It was good, because it got us back in the game a bit," Tucci said. "But that’s a try that happens because we ran our system. I couldn’t have done it without Ara; he gave me a nice ball, and I just had to run forward."

And Lauti did the rest, notching his second of the match with seven minutes remaining as Utah held on for a playoff berth.

"Everyone knew that this game meant everything," Elkington said. "Everything was on the line, and we had to give it our all. There were no second chances for us.

"When Nata scored that try — and I didn’t want to celebrate too early — but in my heart I knew we had it. To close it out in the last 10 minutes meant that we had the good football. I knew we were in."

Scoring summary

11’ UT: Tonata Lauti try (Linehan kick)

16’ HOU: Cecil Garber try (Windsor kick)

25’ HOU: Sam Windsor penalty kick

32’ UT: Saia Uhila try (kick failed)

40’ HOU: Sam Windsor try (Windsor kick)

Halftime: Houston 17, Utah 12

50’ UT: Ara Elkington try (Linehan kick)

60’ HOU: Sam Windsor penalty kick

65’ HOU: Osea Kolinisau try (Windsor kick)

69’ UT: Alex Tucci try (B. Nicholls kick)

73’ UT: Tonata Lauti try (kick failed)

Final: Utah 31, Houston 27

Editor's note: An earlier version of this article indicated that the Warriors were the No. 3 seed in the Major League Rugby playoffs. It has been updated to reflect the results of Saturday's late match between Glendale and San Diego.

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A proud graduate of Syracuse University, Sean Walker has covered BYU for KSL.com since 2015, while also mixing in prep sports, education, and anything else his editors assign him to do.

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