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Why Orem’s Tai Kauwe was the perfect fit for the Utah Warriors

Tai Kauwe, who grew up in Orem and played rugby collegiately at Kutztown University in Pennsylvania, holds up his new jersey with his girlfriend Kenzie after he was announced as the Utah Warriors’ first-round pick in the 2022 MLR collegiate draft, Thursday, Aug 18, 2022 in Herriman. (Sean Walker, KSL.com)

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HERRIMAN — Tai Kauwe figured he would make his way back to Utah, but not necessarily in the way he did last week.

The former Kutztown University rugby standout from Orem was on a mid-afternoon flight from Denver to Salt Lake City, where he was going to be the honored guest at the Utah Warriors’ watch party for the 2022 Major League Rugby collegiate draft.

While there, Kauwe was announced as the club’s first-round draft pick, the No. 9 overall selection acquired in a trade with Atlanta that also earned salary-cap implications for Utah’s professional rugby side. A few hours later — after dinner with his parents, two younger brothers, a sister and her boyfriend, his girlfriend Kenzie and her mother, and three uncles on his mother’s side, as well as a handful of team and media obligations — he’d be back on a plane to rejoin NAV 7s for the Rugby Town Sevens tournament at Infinity Park in Glendale, Colorado.

It was a bit of a whirlwind, but one the Pleasant Grove High alum was more than happy to undertake as he opens his professional career.

“Definitely heartwarming for me,” Kauwe told KSL.com with a bit of a laugh, referencing an inside joke general manager Brandon Sparks shared with season-ticket holders at a draft watch party. “My whole family is here in Utah, so it’s a little more exciting that they can come watch me play after the time they missed.

“I didn’t think I’d come back home to play rugby, but I’m glad I am.”

Kauwe was one of five players selected by the Warriors. But the former standout for Utah County club power Genesis is perhaps the one most likely to play significant minutes as a rookie.

The 5-foot-10, 195-pound scrum half who recently finished his business degree at Kutztown (while also winning a College Rugby Championship premier national cup title in rugby sevens this past spring) is a physical, athletic specimen, and one whose size and speed could be utilized as both a third scrum half and on the wing, Sparks said.

Regardless of where they play him, the Warriors knew early in his training for the Collegiate Rugby Shield in Herriman they wanted him. The fact that he was from Utah was simply an added bonus.

“We already knew he was a good player,” Sparks said. “But we’re really big on character here, and we learned about his background from him. He was all ‘yes sir, no sir.’ There was a moment where we went out to lunch and we had our trainer with us and one of the player’s wives, and he held the door for both of them and then for everybody us. just a little indicator that we wanted to bring the kid back to Utah.”

After a 5-11 record last year in the 13-team MLR, which included wins in three of the final five matches, the Warriors retooled with the hiring of new coach Greg Cooper, a former All Blacks player and New Zealand youth coach who most recently spent time coaching in Japan. They also brought back assistant coaches Robbie Abel and Shaun Davies, the latter a former BYU All-American and USA Eagles scrum half who will prove vital in the mentorship of Kauwe.

The Warriors want to build a team that represents Utah and one its growing community of supporters can be proud to call their own, Sparks said. Bringing home the former CRC All-Tournament scrum half is part of that.

“A lot of starts with the talent here playing club rugby,” Sparks said. “If we want to be successful, it starts with us developing resources for coaches and players. From there, there are so many Utah-based players playing around the world and excelling. And we need to bring them back.

“We want this team to be Utah-built. We want this team to look like the population of the state, to represent the values ​​of this state, as well as the Warriors’ values.”

Fellow first-round pick Gabe Kettering, a 6-foot-3 prop out of Lindenwood, was teammates with Kauwe during the Collegiate Rugby Shield all-star game. But he also might be delayed in coming to Utah after playing overseas with Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland.

Beyond that, the Warriors used a second-round pick acquired from the NOLA Gold to sign former Tennessee lock Greg Janowick, added Lindenwood prop Sam Buckley in the third round, and finished off the draft jumping back in via trade with Austin to selected Central Washington back-row player John Dupree at No. 33 overall.

After learning from Kutztown’s varied international roster, Kauwe describes himself as a “self-taught box kicker” who can also play out wide. Watching Utah’s games on the league’s Rugby Network, Kauwe is eager to get to work with his new family and to play in front of his old family.

“I’m glad I can come back and play where my family can watch,” he said. “I’ve been gone four years in Pennsylvania at Kutztown, and my family didn’t get to watch me as much as I’d like. It’s a surreal moment, but I’m happy to be home and to be a part of this establishment.”

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A proud graduate of Syracuse University, Sean Walker has covered BYU for KSL.com since 2015, while also mixing in prep sports, education, and anything else his editors assign him to do.

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