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Roughly 10 months after word leaked out of the existence of a professional rugby team in Houston, six months after the signing of a head coach and the first player, and five months after holding an open combine to identify talent, the Houston Sabercats took the field for the first time Saturday. They scrimmaged the Austin Blacks, and though the contest was broken into four quarters and not an official game, the Sabercats scored more points than the Blacks.
“I felt it went well. The game ebbed and flowed. Enjoyed some nice chances to go live on set pieces and style of play and put some of our set pieces in place, and I’m sure they did as well,” said Houston coach Justin Fitzpatrick.
“I was pleased with our shape, by and large. With what we’ve been working on, when you can see that come to fruition as a coach, it’s always rewarding. Conversely, we saw some areas that we haven’t moved onto yet. Some of them the boys delivered naturally, and others we need to address. We will do, and we’ve got time to do that.”
Houston’s set pieces functioned nicely, even though the team isn’t whole yet. Only three foreign players booted up, prop Adam Macklin (Ulster), lock Charlie Hewitt (Worcester) and flyhalf/backs coach Sam Windsor (Ulster). But neither of the Fijian 7s stars, nor the London Irish scrumhalf, were in the mix in time.
Most of the team, though, has been going hard since September. For two months, the group has been lifting and training regularly, so actually playing some rugby was a welcome respite.
“For both them and myself, it was just great to get to run into somebody else rather than us. It was a competitive encounter against a good club side,” Fitzpatrick said.
With some of the bigger names not on the field, local guys stood out. For 18-year-old flyhalf Kieran Farmer, a product of The Woodlands high school program, Saturday wasn’t just his debut with a new team, but his first foray into playing grown men.
“He’s a kid with a bright, bright future, and he did an outstanding job. It just goes to show you, if you put young, talented kids in a good environment, they will shine, and I think we’ve got a really talented kid there for hopefully many years, and hopefully beyond us for the national team,” said Fitzpatrick.
“It’s one thing to practice, and another thing when the bullets are flying. He did a really good job, set up a nice try while he was on and was controlling the game nicely. That, for me, was probably one of the biggest plusses.”
Where Farmer helped create a try, another local favorite, St. Thomas High School and Texas A&M standout Conor Mills, actually dotted down.
“He’s got lovely footwork, great vision, and a nice skillset,” said the coach of Mills, a coach’s son. “If I remember rightly, he was the first one across the whitewash on the weekend. He’s definitely done well.”
Another Aggie, Chris Parker, played well, too. And against his former team in the Blacks.
“Chris had a big impact on the weekend. He’s a big, rangy athlete,” said Fitzpatrick. “He’s got a decent pedigree, doing good things here. Good lineout operator. Nice footballer with the ball in hand.”
There are several other local products that excite Fitzpatrick, too. Thaddeus Hill, Jr. is the son of a former Eagle who had a shot at the Canadian Football League, and his athleticism is intriguing. So is that of 6’6” Jackson Slater, the son of a different kind of Eagle, the NFL variety.
All in all, Fitzpatrick seems pleasantly surprised by the level of local talent. Houston is the fourth-largest city in America, but it hasn’t been home to a rugby club of national consequence in a very long time.
“If you compare the level of club competition here, we weren’t sure what we were going to get compared to a Chicago or New York or some of the other bigger cities, but the level of individual here has been very, very promising,” Fitzpatrick said.
Saturday’s exercise was just the first of five scheduled with local Texas clubs before Christmas. The Sabercats will play the Blacks again, meet with the Dallas Reds twice and the Dallas Harlequins once more before their first official match Jan. 6 against the Seattle Saracens, Fitzpatrick’s old club. Houston plans to play a hefty slate of matches from January through March before the inaugural Major League Rugby season kicks off in April, including against the Uruguayan national team.
“I’m a great believer in you’ll only get better at rugby if you play rugby,” said Fitzpatrick. “We’ll have in and around 11 matches under our belts going into the league, so we’ll be nicely cooked by the time we get to that point.”