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In a rematch of the first game of the Major League Rugby season, the NOLA Gold completed the sweep of the Houston Sabercats with a hard-fought 24-20 victory at Shaw Stadium in New Orleans, La.
Playing in the blistering heat, Houston’s Sam Windsor struck first but the Gold’s Zack Stryffeler responded about halfway through the period. After a Windsor penalty put Houston up by three points, NOLA capitalized on its opponent’s mistakes with a pair of tries to lead 21-10. The Sabercats cut the advantage to four points after Connor Murphy dummied his way to score at the half.
A red card to the Sabercats in the 65th minute hindered their attack in the second half but the Houston defense stood tall for the remaining 25 minutes of the game. The teams exchanged penalties late, but it was the Sabercats who threatened to score with the game at stake. Houston pounded against the NOLA defensive front to get within inches of the try line. The Gold fought off the multi-phase goal line barrage and was able to secure its second win of the season.
The match was full of defining moments for NOLA. The penalty try in the first half, the scrum penalty after the yellow card in the early second, Houston’s red card, and the goal line stand at the end followed by the clutch clearance kick were just a few.
“All those moments stood out, but in particular our scrum penalty when we were backed up on our try line, following multiple resets and a yellow card [was significant,]” NOLA’s captain Taylor Howden said. “Our forwards showed some character and mental toughness to allow us to exit and relieve pressure.”
NOLA was pumped up for this game from the start. “JP [Eloff] came into the changing rooms pregame with a speech after two weeks in the hospital and facing some pretty serious stuff. After that, we were never losing this game,” Howden stated.
Howden spoke highly of the Sabercats saying “I thought Houston played well, the game could’ve gone either way. They were physical early on and they’ve got some great players on that team and are well coached. I think both teams defended pretty well in the second half, as you saw with no tries being scored.”
It’s onto the next challenge as NOLA travels to the Pacific Northwest with a date against the Seawolves next Sunday. “Looking toward Seattle, it’s about completing our defensive assignments and controlling the tempo of the game. If our playmakers can direct traffic and our tackle efficiency is there, then the result should hopefully take care of itself,” Howden concluded.
As for Houston, the Sabercats played their hearts out but were plagued by unforced errors all game. “There was no shortage of effort out there,” head coach Justin Fitzpatrick said. “It didn’t help going down to 14 men but what really cost us today was our unforced errors. We made too many simple handling mistakes and that was the difference today.”
“We had the lion’s share of position and possession both in the first and second halves statistically,” Fitzpatrick added. “We were unlucky not to get a penalty try under the posts when we went five or six penalties with their scrum collapsing [in the early second half]. We got a yellow card out of it and I thought that was a turning point where we could have come away with seven points. Above and beyond, we made too many uncharacteristic mistakes, too many knock-ons, too many times the ball spilled in contact. That was uncharacteristic of us and that allowed them possession when they hadn’t really earned it.”
Against Utah next week at home, Houston will concentrate on itself first. “We have to take care of ourselves,” Fitzpatrick said. “[In the last two games,] we made some unforced errors that bit us in the bum. I can’t fault the effort but we need to be more precise and our focus will be to cut down the error count.”
The Sabercats weren’t just dealing with the game on the field but also had the tragedy in Santa Fe, Texas on their minds. Santa Fe High School is less than an hour southeast of Dyer Stadium in Houston and players and supporters are a part of that community.
Houston issued a statement on Twitter saying “the Sabercats would like to send our thoughts and prayers to the friends, families, students, and teachers of those affected by the Santa Fe High School tragedies today. We will wear black armbands in memory of the victims and their families at our game versus NOLA Gold.”
Prop Paul Mullen lives in the area and has friends’ children who attend Santa Fe High School. “You have to really appreciate your friends, your family, and your team. For most of us, the team is your family here in Houston as you spend so much time together. You can’t take every day for granted and you have to really appreciate the days we have together. When you hear something like that, it’s scary.”
The Sabercats are planning to honor the victims at next Saturday’s home game.