The Houston SaberCats open their inaugural exhibition season with a game against the Seattle Saracens of the British Columbia Rugby Union on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Constellation Field in Sugar Land.
The SaberCats will be a member of Major League Rugby which includes the Austin Elite Rugby, Glendale (Colo.) Raptors, NOLA (New Orleans) Gold, San Diego Legion, Seattle Seawolves (a different team than the Saracens) and the Utah Warriors. The league begins play in the last week of April. The SaberCats will play a nine-game exhibition schedule before starting league play.
The SaberCats head coach is Justin Fitzpatrick. Previously, Fitzpatrick was Director of Rugby for the Seattle Saracens, and he played 26 games for the Ireland national team, including games in the 1999 World Cup. Fitzpatrick also played 156 games with the Ulster Rugby team, which was the first Irish team to win the European Cup.
Sam Windsor is the assistant coach and will play fly half back for the SaberCats. Windsor has been playing rugby since he was seven.
“I grew up playing both soccer and rugby, but my father was a rugby player, so I focused on rugby,” Windsor said. “I have played in Australia, London, other parts of England, Ireland and now in Houston.”
The SaberCats have several stars on their roster. Osea Kolinisau was the captain of the Fiji Olympic gold medal winning team in 2016 in Rio. The Fiji Olympic team selected him as their flag bearer in Rio. Kolinisau, 31, first played for the Fijian national team in 2008 and he led them to back to back World Series titles in 2015 and 2016.
“Osea is a great player. The fans will really like his style of play,” Windsor said.
Jamie Dever joined the team from the Cambridge Rugby Club. He also has experience on the Ireland under 19 national team. Adam Macklin of the Belfast Harlequins also signed with the team. Macklin played for Ireland in the 2009 World Junior Championships.
“Both Dever and Macklin were stars as young players on the Ireland national teams,” Windsor said.
Malacchi Esdale was a safety on the University of Miami football team, but is playing professional rugby now. He recently played with the Orlando Griffins.
“Malacchi is a former college football player who has adapted to rugby very quickly,” Windsor said.
There are two types of rugby. In the Olympics, the teams play with 7 players on each side. Other competitions, including Major League Rugby, play with 15 players on each team.
“A rugby player needs to be able to run, catch and tackle,” Windsor said. “In most games, the 15 players who start the game are in for the whole 80 minutes. They need to be in shape. A player will typically run between four and six miles per game.”
The SaberCats will play a nine-game exhibition schedule at Constellation Field, the home of the Sugar Land Skeeters baseball team.
“We think hosting the exhibition season is a good thing to do and a great thing to try,” Skeeters’ president Jay Miller said. “We can’t host the regular season games in April as that would be too much pressure on the field. We are excited about having Saturday night games in January and February. We are expecting 3,000 to 4,000 fans to come out.”
Miller played rugby in an adult league after he graduated from college.
“The fans are going to love it,” Miller said. “I think once they see a game, they are going to come back again.”
The exhibition schedule is:
Jan. 6 – Seattle Saracens
Jan. 13 – Vancouver Ravens
Jan. 20 – Uruguay National Team
Jan. 27 – James Bay Athletic Club
Feb. 3 – Capital Selects
Feb. 10 – Chicago Lions
Feb. 17 – New York Athletic Club
Feb. 24 – New Orleans Gold
March 3 – Ontario Arrows
All games are at Constellation Field in Sugar Land and begin at 7 p.m.