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Judy Teasdale photo

The Houston Sabercats beat Seattle Saracens 50-7 Saturday at Constellation Field in Sugar Land, Texas. It marked the first official preseason match for the Sabercats, with more than 5,300 people crossing the turnstiles to get a glimpse.

The home team scored nine tries, conceding just one to a powered down Seattle, which suited up few players under contract for the Seawolves, Seattle’s Major League Rugby franchise. No. 8 Aladdin Schirmer was one of the few. He took an injury, which may hinder plans to play for the USA in the upcoming Americas Rugby Championship.  

The Saracens never actually crossed the whitewash, as their lone score was a penalty try. Houston flyhalf and assistant coach Sam Windsor scored two first-half tries. Reserve flanker Pago Haini scored two in the second half. Wings Josua Vici and Malacchi Esdale scored one each, as did scrumhalf Connor Murphy and fullback Zach Pangelinan.

Even without the likes of Olive Kilifi, Shalom Suniula, Mike Palefau and other longtime Saracens who will make the trip to Houston June 2 for a regular season clash with the Sabercats, Seattle was arguably the best side Houston has run out against since forming. They’ve scrimmaged the Austin Blacks, Dallas Reds and Dallas Harlequins, too, not always looking sharp. Against the Saracens, the Sabercats played their best thus far.

“We’re just really starting to mesh,” Houston captain Kyle Sumsion told Rugby Today. “We’re playing a lot of games before we ever jump into an MLR season, but we can already see the dividends paying off, as we’re really starting to play as a unit rather than individuals.”

The game itself isn’t all that significant. The result suggests the Sabercats might be onto something playing nearly a dozen preseason games before the start of the inaugural MLR season, while most of their counterparts will play markedly less. But the real marquee news is that over 5,000 people paid to see the Sabercats, and judging by first-hand accounts, pictures, video and media coverage, had a great time.

“The atmosphere, more than anything, was awesome. We were at capacity, so the stadium was loud, and every time something good or bad happened, you could hear all the fans get behind you,” said Sumsion, who knows something about playing in front of crowds. He played college ball at BYU, where the Cougars routinely play in front of thousands of fans, as well as for Sacramento in PRO, and he played for the USA against the Maori All Blacks in front of a sold-out crowd in Philadelphia.

“In that essence, it was one of the best games I’ve played in terms of a sold-out stadium. The owners and everyone put in a lot of work to make sure it was a great experience for the fans.”

Given the MLR is the second earnest professional 15s venture on American soil, kicking off two years after the first, PRO, observers will justifiably be comparing the two throughout MLR’s first campaign. Sumsion has noticed some marked differences already.

“One of the things that was most notable going into it was the amount of preparation that took place. I would say it’s very comparable from the coaching staff and the players, as far as that preparation goes, but on the MLR side, the preparation from the back office and the marketing team was night and day difference,” he said.

“You would have to really try hard to avoid hearing about MLR here, whereas PRO, unless you liked their Facebook page, you would never know what’s going on. From that aspect, that’s something that’s really going to help this league succeed, in my opinion.”

PRO got off to a rollicking start, too, as far as attendance is concerned, with significant crowds at nearly all of the home openers, Denver not withstanding thanks to a blizzard. But there didn’t seem to be much effort put into making sure fans came back. The same can’t be said in Houston, where the first 1,000 fans were handed a package of Sabercats swag, a pre-game tailgate was organized and fans were treated to fireworks afterwards.

“The first game we played in PRO, we were really happy. I think we had just over 4,000 people at our first game in Sacramento, so the tell is going to be how they’re going to be able to keep momentum alive here with the MLR and just get people to come back again. Towards the end of the season with PRO, the numbers just kept dwindling week after week,” said Sumsion.

“But I think they’ve done a much better job here building the experience for the fans. They’re really trying to make Houston feel like this really is our team.”

If the captain isn’t to be believed about the difference, just ask his wife, Halle, who was always in the stands in Sacramento and was on hand Saturday in Sugar Land. She’ll tell you the latter experience was much more enjoyable.  

After the match, both teams took a lap to shake hands and take photos with fans. Sumsion said he identified plenty of rugby people, but also many from outside the community.

“The feedback, from both the players and the fans, has been extremely positive. Both rugby people and people who had never been out to a game before really bought into what we’re doing here in Houston.

“During our post-match function, the Seattle head coach got up and talked about how, based on the reaction they got from the fans, you would have thought they won the game, just because of how excited everyone was and wanted pictures with them. The fans seem like they’re really buying into this, and that’s one thing we’re really excited about.”

The Sabercats have largely been assembled since September. They’re already five months into what will end up being an extremely long preseason.  Like Sumsion, a few guys played in PRO. Another handful, like Windsor, Murphy and Vici, have played professionally abroad. But for others, including Esdale, Saturday was a debut of a different kind.

“Now that we’re in a venue and we’re not playing in public fields in front of 300 people, I think the boys are starting to get their minds around what it is to play professional rugby here in Houston. Before hand, I think people were like, ‘We’ve got a lot of games,’ but seeing the result and seeing how much the people of Houston got behind us, everyone is looking forward to the next game.”

Sabercats players and brass won’t have to wait long to see if those 5,300 will return, as they host the Vancouver Ravens Saturday for round two at Constellation Field.