Former BYU football player Jonny Linehan had the chance to lace up his rugby cleats and return to his New Zealand roots with the Utah Warriors Rugby Club in its 2018 opening season.
The Warriors is the first Major League Rugby establishment to put down roots in Utah. Major League Rugby, or MLR, is the highest level of competitive rugby in the United States. Many local athletes turned to the Warriors to continue their rugby careers beyond Utah’s collegiate programs.
The list of players on the current Utah Warriors roster includes some notable Cougar athletes like Paul Lasike, Matthew Jensen and brothers Josh and Jared Whippy. Jonny Linehan was a surprising addition to the roster midway through the season.
Linehan — a former BYU Cougars punter and rugby team member — was contacted by the Warriors during the team’s early stages, but he was still part of the football program at the time.
“I wanted to keep practicing football to have a good pro day so I said no,” Linehan said. “Then they reached out to me and asked if I wanted to be on the broadcast team and call some of the games.”
Alongside BYU Sports Analyst Jarom Jordan, Linehan called multiple games during the season. His unique combination of rugby experience and humor made him perfect for the Warrior’s color commentary. Linehan’s main goal was to help bring attention to professional rugby in Utah.
“It is an up-and-coming sport — it’s the fastest growing sport in America,” Linehan said. “It is going to be the sport that helps fill that gap when the football season ends.”
Born in Auckland, New Zealand, Linehan was raised on rugby and is excited about its growing popularity in the United States. Rugby’s popularity overseas is similar to that of football or basketball in the USA. When Linehan made the move to Provo to play for BYU’s rugby team, he found he had to make a decision between his childhood passion and an opportunity for his future — playing football.
“Stepping away from playing rugby and all the dreams and goals that I had as a rugby player, that was pretty difficult,” Linehan said. “I’m a believer that things in life happen for a reason, and my plans just changed.”
Linehan didn’t know he would get one more chance to live out those rugby dreams on the Warriors field.
“I kinda knew what the call was about,” Linehan said. “The Warriors had a couple injuries and they said, ‘Hey, we need you to come and play.’”
With multiple injured players on the roster — including Linehan’s former BYU rugby teammate Josh Whippy — the Warriors were looking for fresh talent to fill the openings on the team. The added loss of Tongan national team member and all-time leading scorer Kurt Morath meant Linehan was given the chance to return to the backline.
With Morath gone, Jonny was the top candidate to fill his position at fly-half — a highly skilled, quick-thinking position that executes plays and leads the team’s attack.
“It’s a little bit weird when a new kid walks in halfway through the season and then has to essentially be the quarterback of the team,” Linehan said. “I hadn’t played rugby in three years, so it was a little rough, but I got my feet wet and was able to be okay.”
The Warriors lost to the Austin Elite Rugby 33–41 on June 1 but still qualified for the MLR playoffs, where they fell to the Glendale Raptors in the semi-finals on June 30.
After his final game, Linehan decided it was time for him to hang the boots up for good and focus on a possible future as a broadcast team member. However, he expressed his gratitude for the chance to play one last time and raise awareness for the growing sport.
“Rugby is the sport that best resembles life. It’s a game where to go forward, you have to go backward,” Linehan said. “I had a blast this season, and it was a lot of fun being part of the first MLR (in Utah). Hopefully, it continues, and I’d like to be a part of it.”
The Utah Warriors are currently preparing for their 2019 matches. Season tickets are already available on the Warriors website.