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Aaron Cornia, Utah Warriors
Utah's ​Tonata Lauti heads up field during match with the Houston Sabercats on Saturday, June 23, 2018. The Warriors prevailed, securing a spot in the playoffs, which begin Saturday, June 30, 2018.

HERRIMAN — Tonata Lauti showed up at the Utah Warriors tryouts for the same reason he continued playing rugby long after his college career ended.

“I just played it because I loved the game,” he said with a shy smile. “I’m really involved with the rugby community. My brother and I started a team about 10 years ago, and we play in the Polynesian League here in Salt Lake. I never quit playing...So when I heard they were starting a pro team, I thought, ‘Maybe I should try it out. I’ll go give it a shot.’”

That decision turned out to be fortuitous for both Lauti and the first-year franchise.

The 29-year-old, who runs a construction business with his older brother, not only made Utah’s team, he finished the season as Major League Rugby’s top try scorer with eight tries.

Last Saturday, Lauti led Utah to a playoff appearance by scoring two tries, including the match-winner in Utah’s 31-27 win over Houston.

" There is no way we shouldn’t win this. Our team is stacked. We have the talent. If we put everything together and play as a team, we should come out on top. "
Tonata Lauti

But it isn’t just his own success that has surprised him.

“Where the team is now,” he said, "I didn’t think it would be like that, with how big it’s gotten.”

Not only is the team averaging more than 4,000 fans at each match, but the players said the sponsorship support and television coverage have led to a much more smooth launch than most expected.

“We’re getting a lot of people turning out for the games,” Lauti said. “But I also get a lot of text messages from friends or people I know, saying, ‘Oh, I saw you guys’ game on TV.’ It’s crazy to think our games are televised and people are watching it. My uncles in Texas are watching the games, texting me afterward. It’s pretty cool to see how the sport is growing and expanding. It’s exciting.”

Lauti was born in Vava’u, Tonga - the ninth of 13 children. He moved with his family “all 15 of us” to Utah when he was eight.

“It was fun,” he said of moving from the island to Salt Lake City. “Everything was new, and we had a lot of things, everything, that we didn’t have back on the islands.”

He played any and every sport he could - soccer, wrestling, basketball, and, of course, American football.

He didn’t even consider rugby until he was a freshman at Highland High. His older brother, a senior, played rugby that spring, while he chose to play soccer for the Rams.

“I was playing soccer on the practice field, and the Highland rugby team would come running around, near Sugarhouse park, and they’d yell, ‘Lauti! What are you doing playing soccer? Come over here!” he recalled, laughing.

It wasn’t until his junior year that he’d decide to give the sport a try.

“I went out for rugby, and I just fell in love with it,” he said. “It was so fun.” In fact, he loved the game of rugby more than the sport that had been his favorite — football.

“But at the time,” he said, “it was more competitive to play football. I loved the competition of football. When I played rugby, there weren’t that many teams in Utah, so it wasn’t super competitive. But I loved it because it was fun.”

After high school, Lauti served an LDS mission to West Africa, after which, he enrolled at Utah and went out for the school’s rugby team, a successful club program. Still, his goals in the sport were modest. There were no dreams of national teams or professional aspirations.

“It was just something to keep me busy and keep me in shape,” he said. “I just played because I loved the game.”

After earning a degree in business management, he and his older brother — Kave Lauti — began their own business, focusing on concrete work.

When he heard about tryouts for a new pro team in Utah, he wasn’t intrigued until he heard Alf Daniels would be coaching the team. He talked with his brother, who was among the most supportive.

“He was really excited,” he said. “He told me to go for it.”

Just as he underestimated how good he might be, he also had no idea what to expect of the new franchise in a newly created league.

“When it first started, I thought, ‘Oh, this will be fun. I’ll try it out, give it a shot, and show up to practices here and there and then go play a game on Saturday’,” he said smiling. “The time commitment has been very different. We practice every day, every morning and then at night, except on Wednesdays. And then travel. So there was a lot more time commitment than I expected. I’m grateful that I’m in a situation where I can play.”

The fact that most of the players have full-time jobs and families has made creating a cohesive unit difficult.

“That has been the biggest challenge for us,” said Daniels. “Their fathers, their husbands, and we have to train outside of work hours. I’ve got guys on my team who are shift workers who work 12-hour shifts. They can’t make morning or evening training because of their work time.”

Daniels said the team also hasn’t ever had all of its best players on the field together this season because of injuries and national team commitments.

“We’ve had five season-ending injuries, starting with Josh Whippy, who was lost in our third exhibition, and at that point we hadn’t had all of our overseas players show up,” Daniels said. “So before we even started our season, our team was taking hits.”

Add that to the difficulties of a semi-pro roster, and Daniels said he’s had to be more creative than ever.

“We’ve never had a full team in training,” he said. “But it’s good for you as a coach because you’ve got to look at yourself, and find ways to get around those challenges.”

Daniels said that it should surprise no one that Lauti has become one of the league’s best players.

“Once you get to know him, it’s no surprise that he’s one of the top try scorers,” Daniels said. “He’s one of those guys, he’s there at everything all the time. He’s just committed. ...He has all the attributes of professionalism.”

Even when Lauti was in high school, if he had summer workouts for football that conflicted with his duties as a big brother with babysitting responsibilities, he found a way to keep both commitments. In high school, rather than miss, he’d bring his siblings with him. With the Warriors, he communicates and finds a way to keep up with whatever Daniels asks of the players.

“When he’s there, he’s not one of those guys who is all about mucking around stuff,” Daniels said. “He’s head down, butt up, and he just gets about his work. He doesn’t cut corners. You don’t have to monitor him. He’s here to work. You just stand back and watch him do it, and he’s one of the few guys on the team like that.”

Lauti doesn’t hesitate when asked what Utah fans can expect from Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. playoff appearance against Glendale (Colorado) at Infinity Park.

“There is no way we shouldn’t win this,” he said. “Our team is stacked. We have the talent. If we put everything together and play as a team, we should come out on top.”

The game will be televised on CBS Sports with streaming on the MLR Facebook page.

The fact that Utah made the playoffs after dealing with both the routine issues of a start-up and the unique challenges this year presented is, he said, a credit to players like Lauti.

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“Our goal at the start of the year was to be top four,” Daniels said, noting that the team they will face in the playoffs have been around longer and have enjoyed more stability. “The whole reason I came here, I saw the potential of the athletes who were here and what we could do with them. We haven’t even scratched the surface yet of where we’re headed and what we want to do, and we’re in the semifinal. That’s a huge tribute to the players having good work ethic, having big hearts, and having a little bit of trust in me as a coach to follow things I’ve asked them to do.”