SaberCats vs. Austin Elite Rugby Exhibition Match 1.11.19
It was ‘Faith and Family’ night at Constellation Field as the Houston SaberCats prepared to open-up their 2019 season in front of hundreds of excited fans of all ages and creeds. While the atmosphere remained fun and engaging throughout the evening, it ultimately ended in a bit of disappointment for the home crowd, as the SaberCats fell to the Austin Elite 14-10.
The first half was a dream come true for fans of defensive rugby tactics, with each team making a number of goal line stands inside their own 5-meter to keep the score even at zero. Audible groans could be heard around the park as both squads came close to hitting pay dirt time and again, especially as Josua Vici (SaberCats) and Kyle Breytenbach (Elite) saw near tries slip away as each player found themselves just barely beyond the boundary of the touchline.
Meanwhile, inside the 22’s is where fans got to see the fireworks happen. Scrumhalf Connor Murphy looked to distribute the ball early and often to his playmakers, giving opportunities to guys like Malachi Esdale, Olympic Gold-Medalist Osea Kolinisau, and the aforementioned Fijian-phenom known as Josua Vici.
While the swarming defense of Austin Coach Alain Hyardet continued to give Murphy all he could handle taking the ball out of the ruck, their firewall was eventually broken through around the nine-minute mark on a spectacular counter attack by the ‘Cats, ultimately allowing Fullback Zach Pangelinan to go diving into the in-goal from 40+ meters out for the try. Sam Windsor would miss the ensuing conversion kick, sending Houston into the locker room at halftime with a 5-nil lead.
The second half came about with an increased sense of urgency from both sides to pull away from the other. Austin began to employ more high-risk passing phases, while the hits coming from the Houston defense got more and more physical. It was visible to fans on multiple occasions that tensions were running high amongst the players on the field.
With the help of a few Austin penalties, Houston was able to force its way deep into the Elite’s territory, utilizing their signature ‘ground and pound’ style of forward-oriented attacks, with Tight-Head Prop Charlie Connolly impressing many with his rugged style of play along the way. After a few exciting hits and some awe-inspiring displays of strength (don’t skip leg day, kids), Alex Elkins was able to bully his way over the try line, drawing the first blood of the half and giving his team the 10-nil lead. A second conversion attempt by Windsor would go unsuccessful.
With their hopes of victory on the line, the Elite must have decided to take a page out of the SaberCats book, taking advantage of a few ill-timed penalties by the home team to put themselves in position inside the 22. Just as the ‘Cats did to them minutes before, the Elite used their forwards to methodically gain ground, before a hard charging run from ‘Big’ Ben Mitchell put them on the board for the first time all game.
With the time remaining beginning to wane, each team began looking for that big splash play to put them over the top, with some crowd-rousing runs from either side seeming to fall just short every time. Austin was eventually able to find themselves inside the ‘Cats 22 once again, but the home team were able to make a defensive stand that resulted in a turnover. Unfortunately, a box kick attempt by the ‘Cats to clear it out was blocked, giving Elite reserve Aden McMullen the opportunity to scoop and score for the try, putting Austin ahead for the final time at 14-10.
Despite a last-minute attempt by the ‘Cats to come away with the victory shortly after, the final whistle eventually blew on a penalty, ending the game in favor of the Elite.
While the final result may have been disappointing to those in attendance, there were still plenty of elements the ‘Cats could walk away with while holding their heads up high. Mainly, their big play ability. This team has so many players, from Windsor to Trouville, to Vici and Esdale among many others who can give defenses hell all by themselves, and it certainly showed up on Friday night. And when they’re in-sync with one another, it’s an all-around nightmare.
Second was the physical nature of their defense inside the 22, which the arrival of new Defensive Coach Neil Kelly is sure to help improve even more. Austin’s backs were able to work fast in the passing game, but more often than not they were left without an answer at the try-line door thanks to Houston’s stout refusal to yield.
While the clouds may have briefly darkened the night over Constellation Field, the future is sure to be bright in Houston.
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Photo Credit: Bigshotssnapshots
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