The Utah Lions Rugby Academy took three teams to the Las Vegas Invitational rugby tournament in pursuit of division wins, and while they may not have won the cup, they proved again that the Lions have some of the top rugby athletes in the state.
The boys u18 open division, which contained 24 high school and club teams, was the first to start the day off with a match against Herriman High School, the eventual cup winner in the division. Leading Herriman 14-12 with one minute left in the match, Herriman was able to slide in a winning try off of a penalty on the Lions.
At the end of pool play, there was a three-way tie for first, with Herriman coming out on top in the tiebreaker by five points. That effectively put the junior Lions team in the consolation round, but the boys were there to prove they could go the distance and win the bowl. They proceeded to win three games straight against Red Mountain of Arizona (17-12), Calgary Mavericks (38-7) and Las Vegas Blackhawks (22-12).
They met Red Mountain again in the semifinals, defeating them in an exceptionally close match that ended with the ball held up in the try zone, which secured the Lions a spot in the bowl final.
The Lions faced off in the final against the Tennessee Tri-Stars, an all-star team made up of the best players from Tennessee and Kentucky. The Lions took a quick lead but couldn’t hang on as the Tri-Stars defeated the Lions 19-17 at fulltime. The Lions' developmental squad comes home with heads held high, going 4-2 in the series.
Dallin Winter of Orem High School rugby scored 20 points with two tries and five conversions while Terrell Levy of United Rugby scored four tries for 20 points as the top try scorer on the developmental team.
The girls u18 elite team drew the pool of death to open its inaugural season and come out third overall. It started with a brutal four-game first-day draw that tested their endurance and stamina as they faced the best competition in the division.
Opening against the Atavus Selects, a team made up of the best female players across the U.S. and Canada, they were stunned with a 17-5 loss to Atavus, but it only cemented their resolve. They came back against an incredibly impressive, and big, Auckland Marists.
The Marists organization is one of the tops in Auckland, New Zealand, and the girls team was big, skilled and prepared but it did little to help. The Lions sliced them apart on the way to a 19-15 victory. They followed up those wins with victories over the top Ontario academy Upright Rugby 28-24 and newcomer Rhino Rugby Academy 24-5, cementing a place in the cup semifinals against British Columbia on the second day.
The British Columbia girls team is one of the top girls elite rugby academy teams in North America, and it had come to play. It immediately pounced and put points up on the board. When the whistle blew, the Marists had suffered their worst defeat of the tournament at 26-7; their only consolation was that British Columbia would go on to win the cup.
Now playing for third place, they met a strong team out of Minnesota, the Tundra. Taking out their frustrations of the previous game on the unsuspecting Tundra, the girls went on to beat them 17-14 at the whistle, cementing third-place. It was an impressive finish for the girls in their first tournament at the elite level going 4-2 in the tourney. Kathryn Stowers scored 52 points in the tournament with seven tries and nine conversions while fellow Orem teammate Charity Tenney scored 15 points on three tries.
The boys u18 elite team, in a 16-team elite division, drew a very difficult pool with the Maryland Exiles, the USA High School All Americans and National Athletic Village. Kicking off against the National Athletic Village, they led 12-7 at the half with some brutal play from both teams. They neded all their skills as NAV attempted a comeback and briefly brought the scores even in the second half, but the Lions would have none of that, scoring two more tries before finishing 26-14.
The next game was against perennial powerhouse Maryland Exiles, who the Lions were 1-1 with over previous tournaments. Maryland took an early lead, but the Lions scored twice to go 14-5 at the half. The second half saw a different style of play with the Exiles choosing brute force over speed and finesse, racing up three tries to defeat the Lions 24-14 at the close. The first day ended with the High School All-Americans soundly thrashing the boys 24-7, leaving them in the consolation round and licking their wounds.
On day two, the Lions boys decided that they would go after the bowl at all costs and ramped up their intensity. In the first game against the Coastal Dragons from San Diego, the Lions shut them out 20-0.
Next came the Utah Cannibals, a Utah all-star team that frequently plays against the Academy at tournaments. The Cannibals struck first but were matched by a try from the Lions. The wind was blowing around 15-20 mph, so kicking was difficult and the Cannibals led at the half 7-5. After making a few adjustments, the Lions had the wind at their back and used it effectively, scoring two tries and a conversion in rapid succession to top the Cannibals 17-12.
The boys then competed in the bowl finals against USA Rugby Panthers, a USA Rugby sponsored team of the top athletes in the Southern and Eastern U.S. The Lions took a quick lead and never looked back, putting 12 points up and closing the half at 12-7.
USA Rugby came back incredibly strong and tied the game 19-19 to force a sudden-death overtime. The Lions won the coin toss and opted to receive. Keagan Barnes caught the ball and launched an incredible run that ended with him evading four tackles to put the ball down between the sticks to win the game in sudden death 26-19. Colton Swapp was the top point scorer with three tries and six conversions for 27 points while Keagan Barnes scored four tries for 20 points.
The next stop for the Utah Rugby Academy will be the United World Games in Klagenfurt, Austria. With over 7,000 youth athletes across 10 sports, it is the largest youth tournament in the world. The Lions have the privilege of being the first U.S. rugby team invited to participate in the u18 boys and girls league where they will face national teams from France, Italy, Russia, Kenya, Sierra Leone and Germany, as well as top academy teams from New Zealand, South Africa, England and other European countries.