HERRIMAN — The Cardiac Warriors lived up to their unofficial nickname — in gut-punching fashion for Utah's professional rugby franchise.
Sama Malolo scored a try for the third straight week to give the Utah Warriors a late lead, but Ryan James scored two tries in the final 12 minutes to help the top-seeded Los Angeles Giltinis rally to the 17-13 victory Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
With the win, the Giltinis (13-4) advanced to face East champion Rugby ATL — who beat Rugby United New York 10-9 Saturday — Sunday, Aug. 1 in the Major League Rugby championship match in Los Angeles. The match will be broadcast on CBS Sports Network at 2 p.m. MT.
"Our game plan coming into the game was to try to play a very physical brand of rugby and attacking defense, and I think we accomplished that while limiting them to 7 points," Warriors coach Shawn Pittman said. "We gave zero points in the first 20 minutes, which is the least amount of points they've scored in the first 20 minutes of any game they played the season. So I thought we did a really good job of limiting their chances offensively in the first half."
The try is good! Sama Malolo does it again to secure a crucial 7 points for the @utwarriorsrugby, and steal the lead.#LAvUTAH is now 7-13. 📺 Live now on @CBSSportsNet.#MLR2021#QuestForTheShieldpic.twitter.com/IFUykHBYdJ— Major League Rugby (@usmlr) July 25, 2021
LA opened the scoring in the seventh minute, when John Ryberg scored a try off a fast break that started on the lineout to give the Giltinis a 7-0 lead.
Or so he thought; a knock-on was called for an illegal forward pass inside the five-meter line gave the scrum back to Utah, and the Warriors held the top-seeded Giltinis scoreless through the first 20 minutes.
The stalemate lasted until the 35th minute when Adam Ashley-Cooper broke through for the first try of the game. The Australian fullback nicknamed "Mr. Versatile" finished off a sweep from right to left after a kick to Utah's Mikey Te'o resulted in confusion on a touch and a turnover in the Warriors' territory.
Two of the three highest-scoring teams in the league combined for just 10 points in the first half, including Hagen Schulte's penalty goal that put the Warriors on the board.
After Schulte opened the second half with another penalty, Malolo dotted it down in the 58th minute to give the Warriors their first lead of the game.
The Australian hooker has been a try-scoring machine in each of the past three weeks, knotting two tries in back-to-back weeks to end the regular season. The Warriors owned 63% of possession through the first hour of the match, keeping the Giltinis off balance and holding down the highest-scoring team in the league.
Known for late rallies and close games with 11 games decided by seven points or less, the Warriors took their first trip to the Major League Rugby championship series since the league's inaugural season in 2018 right down to the wire.
Utah's lead lasted until the 68th minute, when Ryan James flipped the field for a try off the right wing to help the Giltinis retake the lead 13-12. James struck again in the 77th minute, dotting it down to give Los Angeles the breathing room it needed with a 17-13 win.
Ryan James does it again! Ryan finds a hole in the defense and sails through the steal the lead in the final minutes of the Western Conference Final!@Giltinis lead, 17-13.— Major League Rugby (@usmlr) July 25, 2021
"We've got some quality outside backs here, and just being aware of where they are," LA's Harrison Goddard told CBS Sports Network. "Just being aware of the edges and in the spaces."
Led by interim head coach Pittman, the Warriors finish their fourth season with a 10-7 record, their best finish since Major League Rugby's inaugural season in 2018, for which the Warriors were one of six charter members of the league.
"In the locker room we talked about just believing, believing that we could do something really special today," Pittman said. "I think the boys really did believe and you can see that the energy that came out in that second half. You could see that our boys had the belief that we could defend them for long periods of time without releasing points. I think we did that well in that second 20 minute part which helped out get out to that lead."
35' — LA: Adam Ashley-Cooper try (Matt Giteau kick)
40' — UTA: Hagen Schulte penalty goal
Halftime — LA leads, 7-3
48' — UTA: Schulte penalty goal
58' — UTA: Sama Malololo try
68' — LA: Ryan James try (kick failed)
77' — LA: Ryan James try (kick failed)
Final — LA wins, 17-13