An Inside Look at Austin’s Red-Hot Rugby Team


In May 2020, Sam Harris got the call: The Austin Gilgronis wanted him as their head coach. At the time, the Auckland, Australia, native had been working as an assistant for the Honda Heat, whom he’d suited up for during his 10-year career as a professional rugby player. The opportunity to lead his first franchise was too tantalizing to pass up—even if it meant moving more than 5,000 miles to a place where his favorite sport wasn’t exactly a leading attraction among fans.

But a lot can change in a year.

Since arriving in town this January, the 41-year-old has worked to revitalize the city’s once-fledgling rugby franchise, which first emerged in 2017 as the Austin Elite. Luckily, Harris hasn’t been alone in this undertaking: In addition to overhauling the team’s roster with athletes from across the world, the club has incorporated new leadership across the board, including owner Adam Gilchrist and general manager Mike Sheehan. It has also altered its team colors to burnt-orange-and-white and changed its name to the Gilgronis (AGs for short), a moniker inspired by a mixed drink served at games. Needless to say, it’s been a packed few months, Harris says.

“It’s been a nonstop process of evaluating the talent we had, bringing in new players, and taking step after step toward building this franchise,” he says. “Compiling a roster that can win, building a culture—those are difficult things to do in a single offseason, especially one loaded with the uncertainty by COVID-19. But we’re proving we’re up to the task.”

To appreciate Harris’ determination, you have to understand the challenge before him. He and Sheehan aren’t just working to build a winner on the fly during a pandemic-shortened offseason where they’ve had to largely rely on long-distance scouting and YouTube clips of potential players. They’re also tasked with drawing Austinites to come watch a sport that many of them have no knowledge of or connection to.

To pull that off, Sheehan has put a premium on making the game as relatable and entertaining as possible for potential fans. A longtime sports management executive who worked in the NBA, NFL, and MLB, he’s well aware of how foreign rugby is for the majority of Americans. In fact, he’s still learning its ins and outs himself.

“My coming into this as a rugby novice has actually been a huge help. Because, here in Austin, I’m the general consumer; I’m the layman,” Sheehan says. “I’ve really tried to step back and think, What would bring me out on a Saturday night to watch this sport? Yes, if you like football, you’re going to love rugby, because it’s 80 minutes of nonstop play where everyone’s moving, hitting, and making incredible plays. But we’re making sure these matches are engaging, explosive, and full of theatrics on and off the field.”

In that vein, Sheehan has spearheaded an effort to deliver far more than athletics at the team’s games, which are played at the Austin Bold’s stadium at COTA. From live concerts (courtesy of the Austin Music Foundation and HAAM) before matches to whimsical interactive in-game fan segments with longtime Texas Rangers personality Jim Knox, it’s all about immersing fans in an experience that extends beyond the field, Sheehan says.

“Don’t get me wrong, we’re working to teach people the basics of the game, to coach ’em up little by little. But at the end of the day, this is about creating a communal environment that everyone can enjoy,” he says. “That’s why we’ve got folks like Dale Dudley and Bob Fonseca [of KLBJ’s The Dudley & Bob Show] aboard as announcers and close contacts with the team. We want Austinites to know this is their team.”

And if that won’t draw fans out, the AGs’ on-field performance will. Currently six matches into their 16-game schedule, the squad is sporting the second-best record in all of Major League Rugby—including winning five of their last six matches. It’s still early, but lock and blindside flanker Christian Ostberg (who grew up in Round Rock) says the team is coming together quickly despite the short offseason. Now, it’s all about consistency.

“We’ve certainly kept it interesting so far this season, waiting until the last minute to win the game on several occasions. It keeps it entertaining for the fans, even if it’s not intentional,” he says with a laugh. “But we’re gelling and growing together. We couldn’t be more excited.”

Despite their early success, Harris maintains that the AGs are still in the initial stages of building a strong foundation for sustained success. Then again, he says, that’s what rugby is doing across the country, with more and more people embracing the game every year. To that point, Austin has the opportunity to be one of the first American cities to truly embrace the sport and introduce its hard-hitting, action-packed appeal to the mainstream.

“Major League Rugby has a lot of eyes on it. A lot of players from around the globe want to play here because of the game’s potential in the U.S. It’s kind of the last frontier for rugby,” Harris says. “Americans are rugby fans already—they just don’t know it. If you come out, feel the vibe, see it, smell it, you’ll be hooked.”

 

 

 

Rugby 101

Christian Ostberg shares his top tips for newbies to the game.

 

15 vs. 15

“Each team has five guys on the field at once. Thirty players in total. The jersey numbers are key: 1-8 are forwards, which are considered your lineman, your bigger guys. They do a lot of the dirty work in the game. Your 9-15s is going to be your backs—your more elusive, skilled players. Think running backs and receivers in football.”

 

How to score

“The basic way of scoring in rugby is called a try, where you cross into the endzone and push the ball down with force. That’s actually where football got the word for touchdown from, because you have to touch the ball down when you score. From there, you have an extra point—unlike in football, ours is worth two points—where you kick the ball through the uprights. You can also go for points, which is essentially a field goal, without crossing the goal line.”

 

Maintaining possession

“Unlike in football, there aren’t stoppages between plays. You’re always moving and fighting for position. That means, if someone gets tackled, a wrestling match on the ground ensues for possession of the ball. In other words, if you get tackled, your job isn’t over. The play’s still going.”

 

Keys to a scrum

“A scrum happens after there’s been a penalty like offsides [similar to in soccer]. Each team’s forwards bind together and connect with the opposing team’s forwards before the ball is thrown into play. Once the play’s initiated, it’s this collision where leverage, determination, and teamwork are critical. It’s basically a metaphor for the ethos of the game.”

 

80 minutes of action

If you’re coming off the field, unless it’s for a concussion test or something, you can’t go back on. You’re done. So, substitutions have to be used carefully and, as you can imagine, on-field conditioning is vital.”





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