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Sunday, August 19, 2018

Rugby

SaberCats Rugby: Houston’s newest professional team


Team captain Kyle Sumsion (catching the lineout ball) and the SaberCats played a close 24-32 loss against the Uruguayan National Team at Constellation Field in Sugar Land. | Courtesy of Judy Teasdale.

Only months after the Astros brought their first World Series trophy home, Houston has added another professional sports team to its collection: the Houston SaberCats rugby team.

The Houston SaberCats, formerly Houston Strikers Rugby, have partnered with the Sugar Land Skeeters to share Constellation Field for Saturday night rugby. The team held local combines last year and signed major Olympic caliber players to strengthen the team with local and international talent in preparation for an inaugural season of Major League Rugby (MLR).

“I don’t believe you can underestimate the importance of being at the forefront of something as exciting as Major League Rugby,” said SaberCats head coach Justin M. Fitzpatrick.

The SaberCats will feature an experienced lineup this season, which includes Olympic gold medalist and the Fiji National Team captain Osea Kolinisau. Kolinisau led Fiji to a gold medal victory at the inaugural rugby 7’s competition at the 2016 Rio Olympics.

In addition, the team has seven Houston natives including Conor Mills and Andres Diaz, who were assistant coaches for the St. Thomas High School rugby team.

The Houston connection

Houston rugby has a strong community that includes more than 12 youth rugby clubs in the Houston Youth Rugby Association. Houston is also home to clubs such as Houston United Rugby Team (HURT) and The West Houston Lions who are joined by nearly 10 other rugby clubs stretching from The Woodlands to Galveston competing in the Red River Rugby Conference’s D1- 4.

In addition, UH’s own Rugby team plays in the Red River Rugby Conference of Division 1A collegiate rugby. They play against eight other schools throughout Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and Louisiana.

“I think that the arrival of the SaberCats and Major League Rugby into Houston will be a real boost to local rugby,” Fitzpatrick said, “helping with practical support via the SaberCats community outreach and academy programs, which will and does support the good work that the clubs already do.”

Fitzpatrick said the increased local and national exposure in the media will also give larger exposure to the sport in general.

Growing the sport in America

Adding a new professional sports team to a city always raises questions to how the fans will react. So far, they have reacted well. The SaberCats started their inaugural season off with a bang with a 5,300 sell out crowd at Constellation Field on Jan. 6. In their season opener, an exhibition game against the Seattle Saracens, the SaberCats dominated in a 50-7 win.

The team followed that up with a narrow 24-32 loss to the Uruguay National Team on Jan. 20.

“The first exhibition (match is) to get fans who are curious. What we’re seeing (is) a lot of people really love it,” said Grant Cole, self-proclaimed rugby evangelist and owner/operator of ThisIsTexasRugby, a prominent Texas rugby blog.

As a former rugby player and coach himself, Cole has been a campaigner for rugby and a respected, familiar voice in the rugby community for decades. Cole said he was amazed at the amount of return fans, and at the season opener there were multiple tailgating groups who had never seen rugby before.

Cole said he hopes that with MLR there will be a continuance to Pro Rugby in the United States, where a lot of pro leagues have tried and failed to make it.

The upcoming season

While the MLR season does not officially start until April 21 when the SaberCats host the New Orleans Gold, its preseason has been underway for over three weeks and has seven more high powered matches scheduled leading up to the start of the MLR season. In addition to the Uruguay National Rugby team and the Seattle Saracens, so far the SaberCats have played Canadian teams the Vancouver Ravens and James Bay Athletic Association.

Saturday night rugby in Houston is in full swing from now on. Houston sports fans are getting world class performances of a sport played world wide. Single match tickets and season tickets can be purchased to watch the SaberCats live in action at Constellation Field. This Saturday, Feb. 3, the Cats will play the Capital Selects from Washington DC at 7:00 p.m.

“Houston is (a) sports mad city with an already thriving rugby population, when you couple that with the fact that Rugby has been the fastest growing sport in the U.S. for the last few years, we believe this is a match made in Heaven,” Fitzpatrick said.

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