ROUND ROCK, Texas — The Utah Warriors were the No. 1 try-scoring team in Major League Rugby’s inaugural season last year, averaging just over 30 points per match and boasting leading try scorer Tonata Lauti.
But in Friday night’s 2019 season opener in Texas, the Warriors won in a new way: with defense.
"This was a great way to start the season. It was a very physical game and showed us some room for improvement but overall I was pleased by the effort of the boys," said Warriors coach Alf Daniels in a statement from the club. “We have work to do as we prepare for San Diego on the 17th, but looking forward to a big season."
Former BYU flanker Ara Elkington scored the first try of the season just minutes into the season, and the Utah Warriors held Austin Elite Rugby to just nine points en route to a 17-9 season-opening win Friday night in Round Rock, Texas.
Fetu’u Vainikolo set up both first-half tries for the Warriors (1-0, 4 points), the only tries scored on the night.
“It’s just like getting a head start and building that momentum,” Elkington said after the win. “If you start slow, it may take you a few games in the season to build up. Right out of the gate, to get a win, it’s big.”
Elkington opened the scoring just moments into the game, dotting the corner for a try that put the Warriors up 7-0 after Tim O’Malley’s conversion.
After giving up a pair of penalties, Lance Williams doubled Utah’s scoring, running off a maul following a lineup and pushing through the center of the try line for a 14-6 advantage.
Vainikolo set up both early tries, running off scrum on a pair of deep pushes into Austin territory to spring the final burst across the try line.
Elkington recovered a turnover as the Texans tried to punch in another try just over 30 minutes into the match, and the Warriors pushed deep into Elite territory twice. But Austin defended well, then earned a penalty kick that Timothee Guillimin converted at the halftime buzzer to pull within five, 14-9 at the break.
“I think our scrum and out lineout were great,” Warriors coach Alf Daniels said. “When we are patient, we looked good.”
Indeed, even when the offense wasn’t always there, Utah’s defense showed up to play.
The Warriors consistently dominated the scrum, forced a few turnovers when Austin drove deep and added the equivalent of a goal-line stand late in the first half to take the lead.
But defensively, the second-year squad that lost former BYU and NFL fullback Paul Lasike and star flyhalf Kurt Morath in the offseason did its best work after the break.
Utah’s defense held the Elite without a score for 40 minutes in the second half, out-scoring the Elite 3-0 on O’Malley’s penalty kick just after the 70th minute.
Guillimin, who converted three kicks in the first half, went 0-for-3 on conversions after the break.
It was enough for Utah, which started the season a week later than most of the league due to a bye, took all four points from their Texas hosts. That moves the Warriors into a tie for second in the league with several other winners last week, including expansion side Rugby United New York and the defending champion Seattle Seawolves.
Utah is off next week before playing at San Diego at 3 p.m. MT Sunday, Feb. 17. The game will be streamed live on ESPN+.
Scoring: Utah Warriors at Austin Elite
UT: Ara Elkington try (O’Malley kick) (7-0)
AUS: Timothee Guillimin kick (7-3)
AUS: Timothee Guillimin kick (7-6)
UT: Lance Williams try (O’Malley kick) (14-6)
AUS: Timothee Guillimin PK (14-9)
Halftime: Utah 14-9
UT: Tim O’Malley PK (17-9)
Final: Utah 17-9