Utah Utes rugby looks to defend 7s title

Published: Saturday, June 4 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

Utah rugby player Sione Lauti looks for daylight. The Utes will be competing in the national sevens tourney in Philadelphia this weekend.

Shannon Condie

The 2010-11 collegiate sports campaign has just about run its course, with only a handful of national championships that must still be decided. You know, those typical "spring" sports like baseball, softball, track and field, men's golf and ...

Rugby sevens, of course.

What in the world, you're probably wondering, is rugby sevens?

Well, in all honesty, until yesterday, I was kinda wonderin' the same thing.

But after chatting with University of Utah rugby coach Blake Burdette, whose team took the inaugural collegiate club title last year and is in Philadelphia this weekend to defend its national championship, I gained a much better understanding of the sport.

For the uneducated (like myself), rugby sevens is basically a derivative of regular rugby, except it's played with just seven men on a side (somewhat similar to 7-man high school football), rather than the customary 15-man rugby lineup. It's played on a regulation-sized field, and a match consists of two seven-minute halves.

Yep, just 14 ferocious minutes of bruising, battling, body-slamming fun.

"They're very short games," Burdette said, "but they're fast and they're exciting. Games can be 60-0 or they can be low scoring and very close.

"I don't know if we have a lot of individual players who really stick out, but we do have a really good team," said Burdette, a former Utah rugby and football player who played on the U.S. rugby team and has served as the Utes' head rugby coach for three years. "From what I've seen this week, every team that's here has improved since last year.

"Last year was the first year for this event, and this year everybody came here with a better understanding of what to expect. I think it's going to be a better competition this year, and we're excited to be here."

After taking third place in the national rugby championships two weeks ago — they lost to eventual champion Cal-Berkeley and wound up their season 17-3 overall, with two of their losses coming against Cal and the other one against in-state rival and national runner-up BYU — Burdette had the difficult task of trimming his 55-member rugby team down to a 12-man roster.

That's how many made the trip to Philadelphia for this weekend's rugby sevens national championships, which features 16 teams.

The Utes' "Dirty Dozen" includes Scott Metcalf, Zack Taylor, Cameron Loser, Danny James, Vernon Ale, Shawn Quigley, Winston Harris, Kave Lauti, Don Pati, Blake Miller, Willie Smit and Tonata Lauti.

"We had a tryout and let everybody who wanted to try out," Burdette said. "It was a tough decision, and hopefully we've got the right 12 guys. ... We'll try to create some space outside and let our fast guys do their thing."

Pati, who plays the scrumhalf position and "is probably the best player at his position in the country," according to Burdette, was recently named to the 30-member Collegiate All-American Team by RugbyMag. So was Utah teammate Thretton Palamo, one of the squad's premier players who has committed his time to the Utes' football team as a running back and did not travel to the national tournament.

"We have a few new guys on the team this year," said Pati, a sophomore from Samoa who serves as the Utes' team captain. "Obviously we're not as experienced at playing sevens, and we're missing one of our key players from last year in Palamo.

"But so far, so good. The boys have been training for a couple of weeks now, and this year's team has a lot of guys with talent and a lot of good athletes, and that's what you need. I'm pretty confident that we're going to do well."

Pati admitted that, after taking last year's title with a thrilling 31-26 overtime victory over Cal, the Utes have a big target on their backs this time around.

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