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HERRIMAN — After a month-long preseason and one of the shortest offseasons in brief history of the league, Utah Warriors rugby football club is back at Zions bank Stadium.
The Warriors will open their fifth season Sunday afternoon in San Diego, the first of three consecutive road games before the home opener March 5 against the expansion Dallas Jackals that catapults a 16-game regular season. But professional rugby is back on the Wasatch Front, even if it will come on television and radio for the first month of the 2022 season.
"We've got a good vibe going on," said Warriors wing Mikey Te'o, the reigning Major League Rugby Player of the Year. "We've been beating up on each other and I think we're ready to stop doing that and play somebody else."
MLR Coach of the Year Shawn Pittman is back to lead the side, along with former BYU standout Shaun Davies as an assistant coach. But plenty else has changed around the team — and league — as MLR heads into a historic fifth season.
Here's a look at new players, new teams and new details before Utah's first kickoff of the 2022 season.
The only constant in professional sports is change, and the Warriors are no exception.
Last year's team kept intact the bulk of the core that led Utah to last year's breakthrough season, a spot in the MLR Championship Series and Western Conference finals. That includes Te'o, the Long Beach, California, product whose career started in San Diego but has quickly fallen in love with Utah (a new baby and welcoming his wife to the Beehive State has a lot to do with that).
But Utah also lost its top two scrum halves — only Olympus product Danny Christensen returns from the group — and have begun to revamp their front row for the 2022 season.
Here's a look at several newcomers to the squad:
Niall Saunders, Scrum Half, Chertsey, Surrey, England
The son of former Ireland captain Rob Saunders, Niall Saunders joins the Warriors after spending the past three seasons with Harlequins in his native England. The 5-foot-10, 196-pound scrum half has experience representing Ireland at the youth levels, including leading the U-20 squad at the 2016 and 2017 world championships.
That kind of expectations has put big expectations on Saunders' shoulders.
"We should be pushing for the title this year, which is one of the main reasons I chose to com here," Saunders told WarriorsRugby.com. "There's good rugby being played here and I want to be part of it."
Puna Vuli, Lock, Fiji
The 6-foot-7, 270-pound returns to the Warriors for his second stint after spending the 2019 and 2020 seasons in Utah. A native of Fiji, Vuli played for QVSOB Rugby Club and SGSOB Rugby Club in his native country before moving to the United States to attend Santa Rose Junior College and enlisting in Major League Rugby.
Carson Shoemaker, Flanker, Peoria, Arizona
The 6-foot-3, 230-pound flanker was identified by a Warriors alum as a hard-working, contact-loving flanker who has excelled in Utah's preseason training camp. A native of Peoria, Arizona, Shoemaker played collegiate rugby at Arizona State and was a high school All-American called up to the United States' U-20 camp in 2020.
Tomasi Tonga, Center, Herriman
A product of nearby Herriman High who also played American football, Tonga was a U-17 and U-18 high school All-American who came up through the Utah Selects developmental program before signing with the first team in the offseason. The 6-foot, 229-pound center also played locally for Utah Saints.
Taris Schramm, Flanker, Payson
Another local product from Utah County, Schramm played collegiately at Dixie State, where he helped the Trailblazers win a Rocky Mountain championship before playing briefly for the Warriors in 2021 after graduating with a degree in applied communications. The 6-foot, 228-pound flanker is another product of Utah Selects.
Opeti Iongi, Fullback, West Valley City
A Utah youth rugby product who played club rugby for West Valley Guerrillas, Iongi joined Utah Selects in the fall of 2021 prior to being called up to the Warriors' first team this preseason. The 5-foot-11, 180-pound fullback is known for his explosive first step and breakaway speed.
Only one expansion team joins the fray in 2022, but the Dallas Jackals grow the league to 13 total teams, including an unbalanced seven teams in the Western Conference. That means one more team to compete for a spot in the end-of-year Championship Series, which will expand to six teams (three per conference) with the top team in each conference receiving a first-round bye.
The Jackals likely won't be the last expansion team for a league that started with seven clubs — including Utah — in 2017.
Chicago has been noted as an expansion candidate by MLR commissioner George Killebrew, with an entry date as early as 2023. Exclusive negotiating rights with a potential franchise in Hawaii recently expired, but the league and the Mexican Rugby Federation have also been exploring expansion possibilities to the south of the United States border with a team based in Mexico, most likely Monterrey, Guadalajara or Mexico City, where the federation operates rugby training centers.
Under a new television agreement, all games will air live on KMYU or KJZZ in Utah and streamed for free on the KSL-TV and The Rugby Network apps. ESPN 700 and ESPN 960 also return as radio partners for the Warriors, marking arguably the most expansive broadcast setup in the 13-team league.
Re-broadcasts will also be available on AT&T SportsNet Rocky Mountain, the syndicated home of the NBA's Utah Jazz, MLB's Colorado Rockies and NHL's Vegas Golden Knights.
Returning for the season to call the games are BYUtv's Jarom Jordan, KBULL 93's Jared "Banksy" Danielson, and sideline reporter Ashlee Byrge.
"No other team in Major League Rugby has a radio deal," Jordan said. "It's really cool."
How to watch, stream and listen
Utah Warriors at San Diego Legion
SDSU Sports Deck, San Diego
Sunday, Feb. 6
Kickoff: 3 p.m. MST
Streaming: The Rugby Network, KSL TV app
Radio: ESPN 700/960