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NIT Champions Ignite SLC

  • 19 Mar 2019

It was champion versus champion last weekend in Salt Lake City, as the two National Invitational Tournament (NIT) titleholders lined up for an exhibition match. On Saturday, Hawaii’s Kahuku High School, the Single-School NIT champion, contested the third game of its Utah tour, and High School Club NIT champion United played its first 15s match of the season. The teams did not disappoint, and the home team pulled out a 12-5 win.

“Not that there are any bragging rights, but when two champions play each other, that’s an epic moment,” United coach Colin Puriri said of the game’s impact. “The biggest thing to come out of this game is that it will be a big confidence boost for the girls.”

Kahuku and United share many familial and cultural ties, making for a sincere yet intense relationship. But the two opponents – both of which will feature in May’s High School Club NIT in Salt Lake City – have very different cadences to their seasons.

“Prior to Saturday, we had just two weeks of practice outside, and we had to cancel one practice last week because of snow,” Puriri said. “It’s hard to get pre-season games just because of the weather in this region, but the weather this year has really put us behind in our build-up.”

Fifteen of United’s players were named to the two Utah Cannibals squads for the Las Vegas Invitational in late February-early March. The Cannibals’ first side finished runner-up to the Redshirts, 14-12 in the final of the Girls’ High School Elite division. Kahuku won the state’s first-ever girls’ high school state 7s championship in January and ran two sides. The Raiders have had more field time than United, but have their barriers to overcome, too. Kahuku hails from a warm weather climate and played in the snow against Wasatch/Brighton (25-5 win) and East High School (19-10 win) on back-to-back days before United. And there was the altitude change as well.

“You always want to test yourself and see where you’re at, even this early in the season,” Puriri said of the eagerness to face Kahuku. “It’s a good indicator for coaches on what we need to work on, and it’s an opportunity to assess individual players, who were playing in their first true 15s game of the season.”

And United has some questions to answer as well. Addie Horsley graduated last year and she had served as the team’s captain during the team’s two NIT title runs.

Photo: United Girls Rugby Facebook

“She was the team superstar, the one the girls all looked up to,” Puriri said. “This year’s team lacks that one dynamic player, but what we have this year is 15-17 girls who all have good skills and good talent. So the average IQ and skill level are higher this year than last year, and everyone’s stepped up.”

United has approximately a dozen returners from last year’s NIT run, and they’re all big contributors. That continuity has also allowed even more proficient execution of the team’s systems and shape, which were implemented three years ago.

“There have been a few additions of first-year players who are doing well,” Puriri said. “Someone who’s become a huge contributor – but broke her nose Saturday and will hopefully be back for nationals – is Nicole Lyons. She’s got good speed and natural instincts, and is just a good athlete.”

Photo: United Girls Rugby Facebook

Kahuku scored the first try of Saturday’s game approximately 15 minutes in, 5-0. Ten minutes later, United prop Sydney Bargeron scored from in close and under the posts, and the conversion made it 7-5 United at the break.

“The first half was pretty even to me,” Puriri reflected. “Both teams have strong attacking systems, and Kahuku has some big, powerful girls who like to hit it up. We tried to match them physically, but we like to stretch it a little more.

“There were a lot of turnovers at the breakdown, and a few execution errors – knock-ons, bad passes – but not many. It was the turnover ratio that kept the game tight,” the coach added. “I imagine the Kahuku coach would say the same thing, that there were a couple of missed opportunities to put extra points on the board.”

Photo: United Girls Rugby Facebook

During halftime, United coaches encouraged players to do fewer “jabs” and work on getting the ball wider. The home side had the possession advantage in the third quarter, and Kahuku penalties helped keep play in the Raiders’ end. Nevertheless, Kahuku defended its tryline with vigor, but United captain and loose forward Princess Tafiti eventually dove through a seam for the try and 12-5 lead.

Kahuku unloaded its resources in the final push and had several tries held up in-goal. In the end, United was able to hold off the Raiders for the seven-point win.

“The girls worked really hard in the off-season. They have a gym and a couple-days-a-week regimen, and their strength and conditioning this year has been impressive,” Puriri said of notable take-aways from Saturday’s game. “And it showed, considering our lack of injuries and how tough this was game was. That was one of the main comments from spectators, that there were all these big hits and they’d just bounce up and do it again. They were sore, and we had one broken nose, but the coaches were pleasantly surprised with their strength and conditioning at this point in the season.”

Photo: United Girls Rugby Facebook

United will now get into the Utah regular season, and first-year East High School is looking like the opponent that will push the squad the most. New teams from Wyoming and Idaho will be heading to town and mix up the spring competition, but there are no other plans to play outside of the state. Kahuku has chosen to participate in the High School Club NIT this year, as the boys’ NIT is also occurring in Salt Lake City, and it made more sense logistically than Glendale, Colo. Thus, Saturday’s match was a nice preview for the type of competition that awaits the region in two months.

“If there’s one fault with this team, it’s that they don’t know how good they are,” Puriri said. “We’ve won [NITs] twice and we’ve taken our 7s girls around and we do well, but they lack a little bit of confidence. I don’t know if that’s just part of being humble … but this should be a big confidence boost for them.

Photo: United Girls Rugby Facebook

“There’s no pressure,” the coach said of NITs being at home. “We have a pretty good fan base here and should draw a pretty good crowd. We have good local support and even in our own union.”

The Girls’ High School Club NIT is Friday-Saturday, May 17-18 in Salt Lake City, and the Girls’ Single-School NIT is Saturday-Sunday, May 18-19 in Glendale, Colo.

See more photos from the Kahuku vs. United game here.

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