After taking three weeks off for Winter Break, the UCSB men’s rugby team ended its preseason with a heartbreaking 10-8 loss against #8 Utah in Las Vegas, only to open conference play with a 30-5 bruising at the hands of #15 Cal Poly on the road.

The Gauchos (1-3-1 overall, 0-1 in conference) bookended their preseason against a Utah squad (9-2-1) that had won eight out of the last 11 games going into the Jan. 10 contest. While UCSB trailed 10-3 at the half, the Gauchos refused to let the favored Utes, who had averaged just over 36 points per game, score again in the second half. While the Santa Barbara defense rose to the occasion, its offense faltered at crucial junctures, failing to convert multiple kicks down the stretch. Had the offense capitalized on any of three makeable opportunities, UCSB would have secured the upset instead of falling 10-8.

“The game against Utah was a really hard match in Las Vegas,” said sophomore lock Patrick Kealy. “We lost 10-8 because we lost two of our extra conversions and a penalty kick, so we would have won if we had made them all, 15-10. They were smashing us all day. But we played really good defense, kind of slow on offense.”

After a physical affair in Vegas, UCSB stayed on the road to battle Southern California Premier League rival Cal Poly (4-1, 1-0) in its first league game of the 2009 campaign. The Gauchos went to San Luis Obispo looking for revenge after a humiliating 36-0 shutout at home a year ago, but found themselves down 14-0 at intermission. In contrast to the Utah game, Santa Barbara’s defense simply could not contain the explosive Mustang offense whose 22 second-half points effectively stifled any notion of a Gaucho comeback. Junior flanker Richard Herbert was particularly potent in SLO’s attack, scoring twice to lead all players.

“We played Cal Poly in front of a pretty large crowd there in San Luis Obispo,” said Kealy. “The final score was 30-5, but it was a lot closer than that. Our game plan was to try to run it up the middle, and once again our offense slowed down, but our defense played quite well around the rucks. They killed us in our set pieces.”

The Gauchos will try to brush off a disappointing conference opener as they return to Santa Barbara for a two-game homestand against UCLA and Arizona. The Gauchos beat both the Bruins and Wildcats on the road last year, and look to capitalize on their home-field advantage to do so again.

“Last year we beat [Arizona and UCLA] away,” Kealy said, “and I think our team is stronger this year than last year even though we’ve lost the last two games to highly ranked teams. I think we can definitely come out and have a great game next Friday and Sunday.”

Kickoff for the UCLA match is set for Friday, Jan. 30, at 7:30 p.m. at Harder Stadium, while Arizona will take the pitch on Sunday, Feb. 1, at 11 a.m.