Why the LA Giltinis Want to be 'Better' in 2022
In 2021, the Los Angeles Giltinis took Major League Rugby by storm, winning the competition at the first time of asking.
The league's newest side, led by Darren Coleman, defeated Rugby ATL 31-17 at the LA Memorial Coliseum to lift the Shield in front of over 7,000 supporters and in the weeks that followed, Bill Meakes picked up the Back of the Year award for his efforts.
Coleman has since departed the Giltinis for pastures new in his native Australia, with Stephen Hoiles taking the reins in California.
He and wing John Ryberg spoke to majorleague.rugby about a successful first season and how the franchise is looking to build from this point onwards.
THE PERFECT START
The LA Giltinis joined MLR in a period of great uncertainty. This was largely to do with the questions that Covid-19 has posed, and does pose, to society on a daily basis.
As a result of the pandemic, much of the team's preseason work was done over Zoom, the playing group spread far and wide across the globe.
Where players could, they would train in small groups and prior to MLR's long-awaited resumption, took part in a training camp in Hawaii.
Recruiting the likes of Matt Giteau, Adam Ashley-Cooper, Dave Dennis, Adam Ashe and DTH van der Merwe, the team certainly had the star power to compete, but it was only when the season began that people got an idea of the challenge the team would pose.
Just over 12 months ago, it was announced that John Ryberg was moving to the west coast after his time with the Colorado Raptors came to a close.
Scoring nine tries in 2021, the 29-year-old maintained his place alongside Rugby new York's Dylan Fawsitt as the league's joint-leading try scorer.
"I think what we did really well last year was being flexible, just taking stuff on the chin and then rolling with the punches all season," Ryberg said.
"I feel like once we finally got settled in LA, in mid-March, I think we just hit the ground running. You could see that in the first seven or eight weeks we were in MLR, we were smoking teams.
"That was a lot to do with our office and our coaches and everything like that getting us the best prepared for the MLR season with what was available."
Cutting a striking figure on the rugby field, Ryberg looked more than at home in LA, scoring two tries in the MLR Final to propel his side to a maiden title.
Playing on a team full to the brim with personalities, the University of Iowa graduate says that it was pure desire that brought the group together thanks to having a shared goal.
"Everyone bought in and there are no egos on the team, everyone got to work and that was what we needed to do," Ryberg said.
"Sure, we dropped off in a few games, but this is a long season and that is bound to happen. I think we showed up in the final and I think that was arguably our best and most complete game from start to finish.
"I could see how badly we wanted to win it in the first season, and we got it done."
A CHANGING OF THE GUARD
As the end of the MLR season drew closer, it was announced that Darren Coleman would be returning back to Australia in order to take charge of Super Rugby's New South Wales Waratahs.
Bowing out in very much the perfect way, Coleman's deputy Stephen Hoiles has taken charge of the Giltinis this offseason. He is joined in the backroom staff by the recently retired Ashley-Cooper, who capped off a 17-year professional career in fine fashion.
Now the 37-year-old is preparing for his first season as a coach under Hoiles, the staff having the somewhat unenviable challenge of backing up a title-winning campaign.
In 2021, the Giltinis finished their season with a 12-4 record. Losing regular season games against Rugby New York, Rugby ATL, NOLA Gold and Utah Warriors, those poor results would be nothing more than bumps in the road as the team entered the postseason with the best record in the competition.
"The new coaching staff has just looked at the season that has gone by, and it is a bit like when you have won a game in-season," Hoiles said.
"You can't look at everything you did well without looking at what you didn't do well. We had to review the season, look for areas we feel like we underperformed and then you have got to work out how much focus you put on what didn't work, versus what were your strengths.
"As a new, young coaching staff, we have probably had too much time to be honest. The offseason is always an interesting time for coaches, because you can potentially over-analyze.
"In summary we looked at what the team could improve on and how we can look at improving on the squad as a result of that."
NEXT YEARS CHALLENGE
So far this offseason, LA have been making key additions to their roster. This has included the recruitment of Canadian internationals Ben LeSage and Djustice Sears-Duru, USA U20 scrum-half Tas Smith, Australians' Leslie Leulua'iali'i-Makin and Brooklyn Hardaker, as well as dual-code star Will Chambers.
With both JP and Ruan Smith having departed for other challenges, and Matt Giteau yet to confirm his immediate future, many of the remaining players from last season will be hoping to maintain some of the magic that helped the side become champions of the USA.
Even then, Ryberg says that the team will be looking to develop the culture and environment that yielded such rewards the season prior.
"A big focus for us is going to be that we can't live in the past and saying that we are trying to be the same team as last year," Ryberg said.
"That is the past, the best thing for us to do is move forward as the new group and for everybody to buy-in all over again and definitely not have people be like 'I was here last year, you weren't here last year' kind of thing.
"This is a new team; a whole new campaign and you have got to start from square one again and obviously we have some good foundations of what we can build on."
Opening up their 2022 title-defense with a trip to Texas where the side will take on the Houston SaberCats at the AVEVA Stadium, LA will be the most wanted scalp of next season.
While this is no doubt fully in mind for all involved in the organization, another key goal for the team is to carry on its growth.
Recruiting Dave Clancy to perform the role of Head Coach for the Giltinis Academy, that growth will contribute massively to the long-term success of the side.
Less than two weeks until the wider playing group gather for preseason, Hoiles says that his focus is primarily on the improvement of his senior side.
"We're not talking about winning titles, we are just talking about being better," Hoiles said. "We have to respect last year, but politely forget about it, start again and try to improve.
"The club can improve; the players can improve, and the team can improve. We haven't gone too deep into the season goals or anything else, but in summary, we want our players to be better, we want them to be determined and driven and trying to improve themselves and the team."
Written by Joe Harvey
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Major League Rugby Stories from December 20, 2021
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