The Utah Lions Rugby Academy ended a European tour to the United World Games with gold and bronze medals. Traveling with rugby legend Waisale Serevi as guest coach and part of the Atavus partnership, the Lions had the opportunity to train and prep with the best rugby player in the world.
The team played against some top clubs and national team sides, including Queen Elizabeth Grammar School (QEGS), Lithuanian National Team, Czech National Team, Hungarian National Academy, German National All-Star team and numerous other quality organizations.
The United World Games attracted more than 8,000 athletes this year from 42 countries across 10 sports. Held at the Euro Arena, a 30,000-seat stadium, surrounding sport complex and various schools throughout Klagenfurt, it creates an Olympic-like environment and is bigger than the Junior Olympics in participation. Into this high-pressure cauldron of national teams, academies, scouts and recruiters, the Lions jumped in feet first.
The Lions' developmental team, the Red team, started the tournament against QEGS, ranked 27 in the U.K. and three-time winner of Rosslyn Park 7s at the under-16 level. The Lions' boys were fired up to get a test against a very good team. They came out hard and quickly put QEGS on the back foot, scoring two rapid tries to go 14-0 at the half.
QEGS took the restart and after 1:05 put the ball down in the corner, followed by a good conversion to pull within seven. They continued to attack the Lions from all areas of the field. The defense held firm and with one more try on the board, the Red team defeated QEGS 19-7 for its first win of the day. The Reds rode the momentum to close a shutout against a lethargic Stade rugby team (France) 27-0 at the end of the day.
The Lions' elite team, the White team, started the day off against its eventual opponent in the finals with a 42-12 shellacking of the Czech National team. The Czech national team scored its first try within the first minute of the game. The Lions took a moment to regain their composure and put two converted tries on the board while starving the Czechs of possession, ending the half at 14-7.
With four more tries in the second half, the Lions dominated the restart to secure possession, preventing the Czechs from mounting a significant counterattack. The Czechs finally mounted a coordinated attack with no time left, ending the game at 42-12. They closed the day with a game against Donau Wien (Austria), winning handily at 57-0 to move into the second day.
The Lions' girls elite team started the first day with a game against Hungarian Academy Esztergomi Vitezek and wasted no time putting the Hungarians onto the back foot. With every girl playing her role perfectly, the Lion girls closed out the match with a crushing 46-0 defeat. After a delay until late afternoon, the girls came back to play FC St Pauli, a top German club from the Munich area. Again, the defense of the girls created turnovers on the Germans' mistakes, and the girls finished day 1 with a 48-0 win over FC St Pauli.
Day 2 saw the first and only loss against the Lions' Red team as the Hungarian National Academy came out fired up and the Lions came out looking tired. The Hungarians quickly took the lead on the opening kickoff and never looked back. They stretched the lead to 12 points before the Lions were able to slot five at the half.
The second half was a replay of the first with two more tries to the Hungarians and one more for the Lions to end 26-12. The Red team then took on a Syrian refugee team from Vienna. While their skills were lacking, they had tremendous heart and never gave up. At the end, 38-0, the teams had gained greater respect for each other and lifetime friendships.
Last game of the day for the Red team was a Slovenian select side called Rugby Olimpija that couldn’t match the pace of the Red team and quickly fell behind with a final 35-0 score.
Day 2 for the White team started slow against RC Bonn. Coming out of the first half at 7-0, the Lions quickly found their pace slotting six unanswered tries to finish the game 47-0. The second game of the day against the Lithuanian national U18 team, which has several players training with their men’s national team, showed that they were a side to be reckoned with, scoring in the corner with accurate passing and explosive running lines.
Averaging a full head taller than most of the Lions, the boys showed great composure and poise by answering with two quick tries, bringing the score to 14-7 at the half. The second half started with the Lions capitalizing on Lithuanian mistakes to score two tries on successive restarts. The Lithuanians fought hard, ending the game 26-12.
For the girls, day 2 started with a run against the Austrian team, Rugby Donau Wien. One of the weaker teams in the tournament, the girls did not give them a break, winning 57-0 in the biggest blowout of the tournament in any division.
With the girls riding high on their overwhelming victories, the coaching staff was worried about overconfidence as they prepared to play the German All-Star team. The Germans' women’s rugby team is notoriously good and frequently travels to the Las Vegas Invitational where it consistently places in the top four. The girls proved, however, that they deserve the title of champion, handily dismisseing the Germans 34-0.
The end of day 2 saw all three Lions teams moving into the semifinals having to defeat national-level teams to get there. While the Lions had shocked the competition with their physicality and speed, the playoffs on day 3 showed how good the competition was.
The gold medal finals for the Lions' White team against the Czech U18 national team in a rematch of day 1 showed that the Czech team had learned from its initial mistakes and would not make them again. Morning rain had created slippery conditions, challenging both teams with numerous knock-ons and missed passes and forcing the teams to become more accurate. The Czech team was the first to score in the corner after over two minutes of back and forth play against the Lions. The Lions were able to score a converted try but the speedy Czech team got one more at the buzzer to take the lead 14-7 at the half. The Lions scored early in the second half to tie the score at 14-14 before a Herculean effort by the team created another try to put them ahead 21-14 with two minutes left.
The Czechs mounted a fast-moving attack out wide where the speed demon of a wing cut the corner to put the ball down just as the buzzer sounded, pulling the Czechs to within two points at 21-19. With their primary kicker injured during the game by a crushing Levy tackle, their secondary kicker missed what would have forced a sudden-death overtime, giving the Lions the gold medal at 21-19.
“Playing against European national teams was an eye-opener with regard to speed, technical ability and defensive skills. It was a real honor to play against them,” said co-captain Keagan Barnes.
With a three-way tie for first in the Red teams division, the Lions found themselves playing the Hungarians again under a steady drizzle for the bronze. The rain continued to plague the teams throughout the morning and made for tough conditions for both teams, which slowed the game down considerably.
The first half was characterized as a defensive battle as both teams probed the center and edges to no avail and kept the score 0-0 at the half. The Hungarians scored first in the second half with a successful conversion. The Lions came back with a try in the corner, but a difficult kick in the rain was missed putting them two points down at 7-5 with two minutes left.
After hammering at the Hungarians for almost a minute, the defense finally cracked and a try was scored in the corner. An unsuccessful conversion attempt made the score 10-7 with the Hungarians receiving the restart. The Lions were able to contain the Hungarians and force a penalty. Kicking it into touch, the Lions won the bronze medal and took third in the U18s.
Overall the tournament was successful for the boys and girls in a test against international competition. The 12 days spent in Germany, Austria and Italy gave the players new appreciation for home and a taste of how fast the game could be played. The tournament organizers have decided to move the tournament back a week to accommodate rugby teams from France, England, Italy and Spain who were in their own national competitions that same week. This will guarantee that the Lions, who have an automatic invite for 2017, will be able to challenge their athletes and give them an even greater opportunity to learn and grow within the game of rugby.
Top point scorers for the Lions boys were:
Alma “El Bandito” Schoenfeld, 28 points
Suene Tauanuu, 29 points
Colton Swapp, 36 points
Top point scorers for the girls were:
Utah Lions Rugby Academy take Gold at United World Games
Utah Lions Elite defeat Czech National team for Gold