Dick Harmon: Utah's love of rugby runs deep

Published: Wednesday, May 18 2011 8:57 p.m. MDT

Dave Smyth is a pleasant enough bloke: a kind, humble native of Ireland who came to America in the 1980s as an LDS Missionary to California. After his mission he returned to the U.S. from the Emerald Isle to play rugby at BYU.

Smyth now coaches BYU rugby and his 15-0 Cougars play will challenge favored 26-0 Cal-Berkeley Saturday night at 7 p.m. at Rio Tinto Stadium for the collegiate national championship.

Smyth respects the game. He respects what his players will get into on Saturday. He hopes fans appreciates the artistry of the sport, which will be center stage this weekend.

Smyth salutes the Bears with as sincere platitudes he can muster. He speaks of Cal in reverent overtones. He knows it is possible for his troops to get rattled just thinking about the Bears, who defeated Utah 62-14 last week. He calls Cal, whose first sport 130 years ago was rubgy, the Royal Royce of rugby.

He remembers the 59-7 humiliation his team absorbed from Cal a year ago. He easily cites Cal's 25 national championships.

He also knows BYU is the last team to defeat Cal — a 28-25 decision in 2009. Since then, Cal has won 52 straight games.

Saturday's affair will be BYU's outstanding offense against a savvy, equally potent Bear team that is fast, strong and physical. He knows all he can throw at Cal will be matched with adjustments, superior scouting, game planning and skill.

I like this guy. He doesn't speak in riddles.

He also knows BYU and Cal have squared off for the title six straight times, and that alone says something about his own team.

A crowd of between 6,000-10,000 is expected in Sandy, Utah, on Saturday.

"It is a game that is fast and physical and is over before you know it," said Smyth. "That's why my wife likes it."

I remember watching rugby when I lived on the campus of Liahona High School outside Nuka'lofa on the island of Tonga'tapu, the capital of the Kingdom of Tonga. It was brutal: a combination of speed and power.

Popular in the United Kingdom and South Seas, native Tongans will tell you Manu Tahi, father of Minnesota Viking running back Fahu Tahi, was one of the best Tongan rugby players to ever take up the game. The father of former Philadelphia Eagle Reno Mahe also made a name for himself in Tonga, Hawaii and California. Tom Sitake, father of current Ute defensive coordinator Kalani Sitake, also made a name in rugby.

Even today, Fahu, who has played a lot of rugby, sponsors and works with a youth rugby team in Utah.

Rugby roots go deep locally. Former Cougar football players Peter Tuipolutu, Henry Bloomfield, members of the local Vakapuna clan and now Ute walk-on football player Thretton Palamo were rugby die-hards.

BYU football conditioning coach Jay Omer has involved Bronco Mendenhall's players in "touch" rugby as part of variety in training during the off season.

The 2008 movie "Forever Strong" features stories centered on Salt Lake City's Highland rugby team and coach Larry Gelwix. Another popular film that has shined a bright light on the sport is "Invictus" starring Matt Damon and Morgan Freeman.

"Those movies have brought a lot of attention to rugby, no question," said Smyth, who replaced Vern Heperi as BYU's rugby coach more than a decade ago. Coincidently, Heperi is now the dean of students at BYU.

Rugby is more than a game, according to Smyth. It is a way of life and opens doors across the globe. Behind soccer, it is the most popular sport in the world.

"I love rugby because there is a brotherhood among rugby players all across the world," he said. "No matter where you go in the world there is a rugby team and if you're a rugby man, your accepted and you are part of a group almost immediately. If you go to Tonga, Samoa, America, England, New Zealand, Canada, Ireland or the Islands, you'll find rugby and it's an opportunity to part of a support group and you have a network and friends."

So, Saturday, this ancient and popular sport will be featured from Utah with the Bears and Cougars. It will be online at ESPN3.com and on tape delay Sunday at 8 a.m. on ESPNU.

Can BYU's Ryan Roundy, Shaun Davies and Jared Whippy and Dylan Lubbe outscore Cal's well-oiled machine?

We'll find out in Rio Tinto on game day.

email: dharmon@desnews.com

Twitter: Harmonwrites

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