PROVO — It typically goes without saying that the annual Wasatch Cup rivalry between BYU and Utah is a monumental affair.
In 2011, more than 7,500 people overcame the cold and snow on March 5 to witness a 40-22 Cougar victory and on more than one occasion the Wasatch Cup has been decided by one try or less — most recently in 2010 where BYU beat a strong Utah side in Provo that included former USA Eagle Thretton Palamo by the score of 15-10.
But this year’s meeting on Saturday at 1 p.m. in Provo sees the landscape of collegiate rugby much changed from last year with 26-time National Champion Cal Berkeley electing to drop out of the nation’s premier collegiate rugby division.
This year marks the first year Cal will not vie for collegiate rugby’s top honor since the competition’s inception in 1980 and has had the Bears of Berkeley playing in 20 of the last 21 title games.
BYU and Utah, for their part have combined for nine of the last 11 championship meetings with the Cal Bears, and as such the Wasatch Cup has proven to be the local and national litmus test for which Wasatch Front program will likely vie for championship honors.
Since the Wasatch Cup’s inception in 2004, BYU has largely owned exclusive rights to the Wasatch Cup, with the lone exception in 2005 where a Blake Burdette-led Utes side not only won the Wasatch Cup, but also beat BYU in the national semifinals, to move on to the championship game against Cal.
Burdette, who’s also the current head coach for Utah said the Wasatch Cup is the measuring stick for where his program looks to be on the national stage.
“We look forward to playing this game each year,” Burdette said, “and it’s essential for us to play it because it shows where we stand each season as a program.”
Utah played in the National Championship in 2002 and 2005 and brings a strong history of national respect.
Early losses to St. Mary’s in Moraga by 41-10 and Rugby Super League men’s team San Francisco Golden Gate 58-19 showed a youthful Utes team that was looking to find an identity.
But a narrow and last-second defeat to the vaunted Cal Berkeley at Rio Tinto Stadium by the score of 23-22 and recent big-margin victories over Arizona (68-15) and Arizona State (81-27) show that the Utes are starting to hit their stride.
The Utes are led by shifty All-American scrum half Don Pati, while utility back Tonata Lauti adds pace out wide to an already exciting Utah backline.
All-American Mike Shephard and Nick Mostyn will also look to feature well against fellow All-American BYU front-rowers Mikey Su’a and Ray Forrester. The physicality and finesse of the Utah attack will be on display should the Utes look to pull out the win in Provo.
BYU for their part will look to add to their seven Wasatch Cup victories by defeating the Utes on their home turf of South Field.
The Cougars have never lost on South Field and hope to add Utah to their 2012 mix of South Field victims with St. Mary’s (53-17), Arizona (80-8) and Air Force (76-20) all having felt the sting of defeat in Provo.
“We love it here,” said BYU captain Ryan Roundy, “South Field is one of the greatest places to play rugby in America. And having the Wasatch Cup here will make it even more exciting.”
The Cougars own a 12-0 record on the season with two victories over RSL teams Old Puget Sound and the Denver Barbarians.
Headlining the Cougars are senior halfbacks Dylan Lubbe and Shaun Davies who have led BYU to successive victories over the Utes since their 2008 arrival.
The Cougars will also likely lean on the leadership of Roundy, whose barging runs have set up centers Seki Kofe and Paul Lasike this year on numerous occasions.
Despite BYU’s undefeated season and Utah’s three losses in 2012, BYU head coach David Smyth says he knows Utah will be a very formidable foe come Saturday.
“We have a lot of respect for Utah,” Smyth said. “You can never look past them no matter what their or our records are and we know they will be up for the big game this Saturday. We’ll have to be on our best to make sure the game goes as we hope.”
As both teams line up for the Wasatch Cup 2012 each team will know their efforts will likely lead to an inside track towards a potential championship game at Rio Tinto Stadium on May 19, with the victor likely owning the rights to the No. 1 seed from the Western Conference.
“Whatever their [Cal Berkeley’s] reason for dropping out was,” said Smyth,”it doesn’t change our goals or objectives. And winning the Wasatch Cup is one of the first part of those.” Tickets to the match can be bought at the gate for $10 for adults, $5 for students with kids under the age of 12 being free. Groups of 20+ can get in for $2 per person.
Rugby fans will be entertained by a curtain-raiser match at 11am between Lowland Rugby Club and Wasatch Ravens’ 7th and 8th grade teams before the kickoff between Utah and BYU.
Gates open at 10:30 a.m. for the curtain-raiser match and cost for admission is $5 for all who arrive before 11:30 a.m.
WASATCH CUP PAST RESULTS
▪ 2011: BYU 40 UTAH 22
▪ 2010: BYU 15 UTAH 10
▪ 2009: BYU 59 UTAH 15
▪ 2008: BYU 30 UTAH 27
▪ 2007: BYU 21 UTAH 20
▪ 2006: BYU 39 UTAH 3
▪ 2005: UTAH 17 BYU 15
• 2004: BYU 32 UTAH 19