Apparently so do the local fans of the Houston SaberCats. This is the inaugural season of Major League Rugby and although the sport has been around for nearly 195 years, most people here are unfamiliar with it. It’s like someone blended football and soccer together, added some quirky rules and let ’er rip. (Actually, according to the Pro Football Hall of Fame, the game we know as football was born out of rugby.)
My first match was on Jan. 13 when the SaberCats hosted the Vancouver Ravens. It was the second match held at the pitch (they don’t call it a field) at Constellation Field. I had no earthly idea what to expect and no clue what I would be photographing, so I just took a lot of pictures of everything. It was clear to me the fans (with the exception of a few diehard rugby aficionados) had no idea what they were watching. They knew to cheer whenever the SaberCats scored (they call it a try, but it doesn’t count until they touch the ball down on the ground in the in-goal [end zone], which to me sounds more like a touchdown) but other than that, they seemed to be as bewildered as I was.
Over the past few weeks I’ve come to understand the basics of the game and some of the strategy and quirks. The same is quite obvious with the black and gold faithful in the stands. They now cheer at appropriate times and seem to really be getting into the matches. Unlike baseball and football where the scoreboard operator frequently flashes “get loud” graphics, the hundreds of people in attendance were very in tune with what was going on and were quite vocal about it.
(I relate my experience of learning rugby to that classic Andy Griffith story called “What it was, was football.” It’s the story of a country bumpkin’s accidental discovery of a football game. If you’re not familiar with it, I recommend you Google it for a good laugh.)
On Saturday I covered my fourth match, which was the team’s seventh at Constellation Field. The SaberCats played five matches before coming to Sugar Land and, after two more matches here, will take to the road for a couple more exhibition season matches before the regular season starts.
At the time of this writing it has not been announced where Houston will play their inaugural regular season. The City of Houston has agreed to build a $3.3 million, 3,500-seat stadium at Houston Amateur Sports Park along Texas Highway 288 in south Houston for the SaberCats to lease, but that won’t be ready until the 2019 season.
We do know they will not be at Constellation Field because it’s a baseball stadium and the Sugar Land Skeeters will be playing there at the end of April. In the meantime the field will need to be reconfigured for baseball, which will take some time.
I must confess that I was just a little skeptical last summer when the Skeeters introduced the team and announced they would be playing at the stadium. I’m thrilled to have a local professional sport here and very grateful for the chance to see and learn about rugby, but I’m your basic football and baseball kind of guy. I don’t like basketball and never got into soccer or hockey.
I think I could come to really like rugby, but once baseball starts it will have to take a back seat. I’m unapologetically and enthusiastically a Skeeters fan. That and they are the local team. It wouldn’t make much sense for me to skip the Skeeters to cover the SaberCats. Nonetheless, I think it’s safe to say that the SaberCats have made new fans here and will have a good following going into their first season. I think they’ll also sell a lot more tickets once they can tell people where they will be.
In the meantime, if you have any interest at all in seeing professional rugby (or are just looking for an excuse to get out and have a good time with friends), I highly recommend checking out the SaberCats. They play Feb. 24 against the New Orleans Gold (I foresee a rivalry forming here) and on March 3 against the Ontario Arrows.
Major League Rugby currently has seven teams with an eighth scheduled to join in 2019. In addition to Houston and New Orleans, there are the Austin Elite Rugby (an in-state rival), the Glendale (Colorado) Raptors, the San Diego Legion, Seattle Seawolves, and the Utah Warriors. Next season the Rugby Union of New York will join the league.
This is the second recent attempt to bring professional rugby to America. While there are rugby clubs that have been in existence on these shores for decades and even a century, a professional league has never taken root. In 2016 the PRO Rugby league formed with four teams but folded the next year. From everything I’ve seen so far, it appears MLR has taken a smart and well-researched approach to forming the league. All of my interactions with them have been highly professional and the play has been fun.
Not only are they trying to get a league off the ground, but they are also very involved in the community and have been instrumental in getting youth leagues going. It’s going to take the league some time to get traction in this country, but I think it can be done. The timing is good with so many fans getting fed up with the NFL. Houston, and especially here in Fort Bend County, is a great location because of the incredible diversity here. Many people come from countries where rugby has a strong foothold.
I hope that this league and this team are wildly successful here. It’s been an honor and privilege to be with them from the start. Even though my focus will switch to the Skeeters, you can bet I’ll be following the SaberCats – hopefully for a long time to come.