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How the Austin Gilgronis Turned a Corner in 2021

December 7, 2021 - Major League Rugby (MLR) - Austin Gilgronis News Release


As the countdown to the 2022 Major League Rugby season continues, the Austin Gilgronis' head coach, Sam Harris, and the long-serving Zinzan Elan-Puttick, discuss how the team has turned their fortunes around under new leadership at Bold Stadium.

TURNING THE TIDE

In the Austin Gilgronis' history prior to 2021, the team had won four games, drawn once and lost on 28 more occasions.

Hardly an inspiring record, the team turned over a new leaf in the season that has just passed, narrowly missing out on a place in the playoffs if a late-season dip in form hadn't of come into play.

It was a remarkable turn of form for a team that experienced a miserable 2019 season, losing all 16 games played that year.

One person to have experienced the highs and lows of life in Texas is Zinzan Elan-Puttick, the versatile back joining the side for their inaugural season and has become a part of the furniture in that time.

"Year one was the most competitive that we were of the first three years (missing out on the playoffs by four points)," Elan-Puttick said. "I believe we won three out of the eight games and just narrowly missed out because there was only seven teams.

"I never thought we'd go 0-16 (in 2019), but by the fifth or sixth game, I didn't know what was going on with our team. From a culture standpoint, we lost our grip on things and for anyone on the outside looking in, you would say that an 0-16 team was probably never going to be successful.

"Going into year three, it was a brand-new coaching staff, but with people from the original organization, the same ownership, but at this point you could tell that the amount of money being pumped into the program was way less than the previous two years.

"We didn't even know we were close to not existing as a program. As soon as that happened, they brought some new blood in, in the form of Jamie Mackintosh, Kurt Morath, Will Magie, so we felt pretty good going into year three once the ownership change happened.

"Obviously Covid then happened, but I do think that if we played the whole season, I don't think we would have made the playoffs necessarily, but I do think we could have gone 8-8 or something like that."

Ahead of the 2021 season Sam Harris walked through the door of the Austin Gilgronis training facility, knowing full well of the size of the job that he had on his hands.

Under their new coaching regime, the Austin narrowly missed out on playoff contention, having placed third in the Western Conference.

Charged with changing the fortunes of the club, 41-year-old confident in his ability to turn things around at Bold Stadium through the installation of a strong team culture.

"I was excited about the potential and the only way was up, type of thing," Sam Harris told majorleague.rugby.

"It was a really interesting process. I was in Japan as a coach over there and got offered this opportunity, I love American sport and I have always loved it.

"This opportunity came up and it possibly didn't look as attractive as others would think, but I really saw the potential here, even though they didn't have a very good win percentage.

"I knew that because I had complete autonomy around the roster, I knew I could do a job there with an adequate squad and once I got here, with no disrespect to anyone that had come before me, I knew I could bring a culture to the club."

NARROWLY MISSING OUT

While at the conclusion of the regular season Austin were 10 points adrift from Utah Warriors in playoff contention, the fine margin between achieving postseason rugby and not is there to be seen.

Picking up a 33-14 win over the San Diego Legion in week 15 and heading into a bye week, not much separated the Gilgronis and the Warriors. Both teams returned two weeks later, Austin losing to the LA Giltinis on the road, while Utah's try scoring bonus point in their 31-41 defeat to Rugby ATL secured Shaun Pittman's teams place in the Western Conference Final.

"At the start of the year, I said to my coaching group that I wanted to put ourselves in a position to be in the finals," Harris said.

"You talk about 10 points, because it is quite apt that the penultimate round we played LA, our fierce rivals, and we are playing them at the Coliseum, we are playing them and are 17-12 up at half-time and we kind of had it all in front of us to do, actually, we didn't get the job done and LA did.

"We dropped that game, then effectively Utah got the bonus point the game straight after that one, which knocked us out of semi-final contention.

"That's where our aspirations were, but ultimately, we didn't get there, so we didn't get the job done. I think it is hard for us not to compare ourselves to LA. They are the benchmark.

"From their point of view, they had a difficult task because they had to build a culture from scratch, but from my view I had a more difficult assignment because I had to change a losing culture and turn that into a winning culture. If you look at it that way, maybe you consider it as successful."

Having experienced several different coaching staffs while attached to the Gilgronis, Elan-Puttick is firm in the belief that the arrival of both Harris and Mark Gerrard.

In the days that followed, the 29-year-old's re-signing with the team was announced, along with fellow experienced campaigners Mason Pedersen, Dom Bailey, Dom Akina and LaRome White.

Newer faced like Will Magie, Jamie Mackintosh, Frank Halai and Kurt Morath all committed to the cause too, as the experience of Bryce Campbell, Sebastian de Chaves, Robbie Coetzee and Isaac Ross came from overseas to add their combined wealth of experience.

Like so many teams last season, Austin did much of their preseason work virtually, a period which the utility back sees as vital to the side's development.

"I believe he jumped on a Zoom call with every single AG player at the time and from there he cut a few players and then started bringing in a few players," Elan-Puttick said.

"It was pretty ruthless in that sense, I knew that when they brought these guys in that they wanted to make this program successful and not to just win games, but actually push for a title.

"In June or July of last year we started doing monthly Zoom calls and as simple as that sounds, that alone brought us together as a group and after a couple of months that turned into bi-weekly Zoom calls and then just before preseason started it became weekly Zoom calls.

I guess Sammy thought that was the best way for us to get to know one another, started implementing a little bit of game planning and stuff like that. I personally think by doing things like that and getting to know one another was a massive shift in our season last year."

ATTENTION ON 2022

During this offseason, Harris has already been adding nicely to his roster. Amongst his arrivals are USA international Marcel Brache, who brings 11 years of professional experience from his time overseas, Julián Domínguez from NOLA Gold, Luke Beauchamp from the Houston SaberCats and scrum-half Ryan Louwrens.

Clearly having been pleased with the efforts of his forwards last season, the majority of his offseason additions coming in the backline.

With only the exception of Beauchamp (flanker), Harris has added more strike power to his backline, Dominguez having been one of the greatest threats in MLR last season.

"I think I have put the roster together to get the job done," Harris said. "I think I have put the coaching staff to get the job done. In saying that, watching the other teams around the league, they have done the exact same thing.

"Everyone is getting stronger, better coaching staffs are coming in, better American players are coming back, so just the quality of the squads in both conferences, but in the Western Conference in particular, Seattle are recruiting really well, San Diego are going to be thereabouts, LA are always going to be strong, Utah have established a culture that is really special.

"While I am really confident that I have got a good squad, nothing has really changed for us. We have still got to do the work and still got games we should win, and we have to win the tight games that are 50-50s."

A noticeable change this offseason has been the establishment of the AG Rugby Outlaws. The Outlaws makes up the junior and senior academy, the side having played against the American Raptors, Rugby HTX, 404 Rugby ATL and USA Rugby South.

While a development tool, the academy has also offered many of the players living locally to Austin the chance to train the entire offseason in preparation for the 2022 MLR season.

This has included recent draft picks and players returning from injury, trying to get up to speed for a cut and thrust year of professional rugby that starts with three home fixtures, the first against the Dallas Jackals in early February.

"Our main goal is to push for a title," Elan-Puttick said. "With our academy starting up in the pre-preseason, we have also had a few guys that are local as well that are part of the AG family that are training all the time.

"In previous years we have had guys going somewhere else or that have taken the four months to get healthy and get ready and I think creating that environment where we have constantly kept training throughout the offseason, that is huge.

"Last year, we were still implementing fitness and strength and things like that, whereas now we have already dove straight into rugby because we have all showed up pretty fit and strong and ready to go."

Written by Joe Harvey

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