Colton’s Corner: Week 11, Featuring Sam Windsor
Colton’s Corner will be a weekly feature on five topics from around MLR.
Seawolves Overcome Slow Start to Defeat Warriors
Friday night’s matchup between the Warriors and the Seawolves was the perfect example of two different teams in two different places 11 weeks into the Season. Utah showed the potential that they have, but to me at least, it always felt as if Seattle was going to find their footing eventually and come out on top. That turned out to be exactly what happened. I get the feeling that the Warriors are building something out in Utah. They’ve played some of the top competition in the league extremely tough and their record would like different if it weren’t for a few tough breaks along the way. Seattle is just an experienced side that’s doing everything they can to stay in the hunt to defend their title. The Seawolves simply can’t afford to drop games to teams lower than them in the tables if they want to be in the mix come June, and they are continuing to take care of business.
Raptors Complete Comeback to Defeat SaberCats
Infinity Park has produced some of the best games of the season over the last few weeks. Look no further than Saturday night’s match between the Glendale Raptors and the Houston SaberCats, which quietly broke the record for the most points scored in a Major League Rugby match (96) that was set on March 30 in a 61-34 match that saw the Toronto Arrows defeat the Utah Warriors. In an event that I’d be willing to bet very few people saw coming, Houston jumped out to a 32-0 lead in the first 35 minutes of the match behind a forward pack that seemed to have Glendale scrambling for answers. The Raptors seemed to find those answers right around the 35 minutes mark when wing and the MLR’s leading try-scorer punched two in for the Raptors before the half. After going ice cold, Houston’s Sam Windsor put the SaberCats back on top with a beautiful chip-and-chase try that gave them an eight-point lead late in the match. Glendale scored two late tries to not only pick up the win but also steal a bonus point away from the SaberCats in the process. Glendale likely won’t be able to get away with a dreadfully slow start against other teams. Houston, on the other hand, has played some good rugby in the last few weeks. They still have a ways to go but they look like they’ve come a long way since Week 1.
Gold Steal Victory Over Arrows
If it wasn’t already obvious, NOLA Gold is the real deal. They went on the road, played in front of a sold-out crowd, and stole a win in the match’s final minutes from a motivated Toronto Arrows club. The two matches they have lost this season have come by a combined four points to teams in second and third place, respectively. It’s stats like that and the fact that a different member of the Gold always seems to be Johnny on the Spot when the match is on the line that gives me reason to believe the NOLA could win the whole thing this season. Toronto deserved a better fate on Sunday, but there is a reason why NOLA tops the table and the Arrows are in sixth place. Seven-straight home matches means they’ll have the opportunity to climb up the table and into a playoff spot, but they’ll have to win matches like Sunday’s if that’s going to be a real possibility.
Legion Use Seven Tries to Defeat Elite
After several weeks of improved rugby, Austin regressed this week. Unfortunately for them, it came against a Legion side that isn’t playing around at this stage of the season. Their seven-try performance on Sunday night was the perfect representation of their all-business attitude as they try to work their way back into the top of the table. “The table is so congested we are just focused on doing our job,” Legion head coach Rob Hoadley said after the match. “It really doesn’t matter who we are playing, we just have to find our best performance each week to be successful.” That head-down attitude has them one point behind the Seawolves for a playoff spot, two points behind the second place Glendale Raptors and seven points behind the first place Gold with a big tilt against third place RUNY coming up this week. I wouldn’t want to run into San Diego right now.
A Conversation With Sam Windsor
Fly-half Sam Windsor’s route to the Houston SaberCats has led him all over the world and back.
“I suppose the beginning is usually the best place to start,” Windsor said over the phone at Denver International Airport following the SaberCats’ tough loss to the Raptors on Saturday night. Houston let an early 32-0 lead slip through their fingers and the Raptors made them pay in the final minutes of the match.
Before he was the backs coach and fly-half for the SaberCats, he was clawing at the chance to play Super Rugby in his native Australia.
“I exhausted as many avenues as I could back in Australia to try and break into a Super Rugby squad,” Windsor said.
That led him to Europe, back to Australia and back to Europe once more before reconnecting with his wife-to-be Becca before a contract with Ulster of the Pro14. As his time with Ulster was beginning to wind down, he made the decision to move to the United States to settle down with Becca and play rugby with the Seattle Saracens.
“I wasn’t getting the opportunities I would’ve liked at Ulster. I was playing behind a talented fly-half and inside center. She was living in the States and we wanted to live together so it was an easy decision in that regard,” Windsor said. “There were a lot of whispers of professional rugby kicking back up in the States so I took a bit of a gamble, took a bit of a risk and packed up and moved out to America.”
After five months with the Saracens, Windsor jumped at the opportunity to coach the backs and play fly-half for the SaberCats in Major League Rugby’s first season.
Windsor has been a solid foundation for the SaberCats to lean on in the club’s first two seasons. He led the MLR in scoring last season with 99 points and has picked up right where he left off in Year 2. His 93 points on the season rank him fourth in the MLR in points scored. When Windsor scores, Houston always has a chance to win and his play Saturday night was a large part of the reason that the SaberCats were in a position to win in the match’s final minutes.
His story is an interesting one and I’m very grateful he took the time to share it with me. We discussed his journey to the MLR, his experience so far, and much more below.
Can you tell me a bit about your journey to the MLR?
“I exhausted as many avenues as I could back in Australia to try and break into a Super Rugby squad. I spent plenty of years in the Brumbies academy coming out of school before going to Europe for a two-year experience to play rugby with my brother and experience Europe a little bit. After two years of good fun and challenging rugby with Blackheath, I went back to again try my luck at getting into that Brumbies squad to no avail really. In my mid-20s I went back to Dublin for a brief stint with Leinster and didn’t quite make it into their first team. The NRC, which is probably the equivalent to the MLR, had kicked back off in Australia so I went back and joined the (New South Wales) Country Eagles in 2014 and thought I had a really good season. We started every game and made the semi-finals and I’d hoped to get some attention off the back of the season whether it was the Rebels, Waratahs, Brumbies or the Reds, but again nothing really presented itself, so I took an opportunity back in Europe. I’ve got an Irish passport, as well as an Australian one so it makes those kinds of moves a lot easier not having to worry about visas and what not. I headed back to Europe because I still had my brother living over there at the time and one of my sisters was about to move over as well, so it wasn’t a hard decision to make. I was still playing championship and premier rugby. That was the last move out of Australia for me. From Worcester I moved up to Ulster for about two years, but I chose to leave my contract a little earlier. I met my wife when I was playing in England actually the first time. She was an American and we were out on tour. We met in the summer there and stayed friends for the better part of four years before we met up again and started seeing each other. As I was making the move up to Ulster, she came and lived with me in Belfast for six months. We were best mates by that stage.”
What has led to the SaberCats’ improved offense over the last two weeks?
“If anything, maybe our set pieces have tightened up. At the start of the year, we weren’t quite getting a return on a dominant scrum or an accurate lineout. Definitely last night, and against Utah, one of our main focuses was the scrum. We’ve got a serious forward pack and guys coming off the bench that adds a bit of a punch to the tight five. Big emphasis on challenging the other team’s set pieces. We did a lot of work on film to try and figure out where they are weak and where we can attack them both on attack and on defense. To have that working in our favor now obviously creates a few more attacking opportunities for us. When we are in field goal position, we can obviously go for penalty goals and what not but we aren’t scared to play the corner now. Our driving maul was working well for us at the start of the year and we really haven’t had a chance to bring that back in the last couple of weeks. It probably comes down to a bit of belief as well. The belief that we can mix that set piece with the teams well above us in the table.”
On Houston’s Tough Loss to Glendale
“I think, as gut-wrenching as it was last night, people that were watching that game on TV were probably entertained. We are entertainers and we play for the fun of it. We’re not far off. It’s so hard to pinpoint where we’ve gone wrong. Early in the year you can argue that if a couple of calls had gone our way then games might’ve gone our way as well. We’ve got eight more games to kind of right our ship and make our way up the leaderboard.”
On the changes he’s made between last year and this year
“Last year was a challenging year for me because I had never really coached before. Juggling a coaching position as well as a playing position, I definitely learned a lot from it and I think the players and my teammates weren’t quite used to that dynamic either. I think that caused some uncertainty as to the way that they could handle themselves around me. I probably didn’t handle myself professionally as I should have as a coach. I learned from last year’s mistakes and have been a little more relaxed and focusing more on my playing side of things and reconnecting with my teams to earn their trust again is the probably the best way to say it. I’m still enjoying playing rugby. I think that’s the main thing that I probably need to focus on. Becca, my wife, reminds me before every game to have fun.”
What are your thoughts for your club as you proceed through the season?
“Last year if we would’ve won the league it would’ve been a miracle. Seattle has had those players together for a number of years. We’re a second-year club now and 95 percent of the team has come from outside of Houston. With that comes a bit of patience to build comradery and connections and trusting each other and knowing each other’s game. You’ll see our attack will continue to thrive as the seasons goes on. It was nice to get the four tries on the board last night. We’ve got some elusive back and some exciting forwards that can throw the ball around. The beauty of rugby and the long season is that we get to dust ourselves off and go again in seven days’ time.”
What changes have you noticed about the level of play in the MLR this season?
“I’d say that the last couple of weeks have been an anomaly in the way that the season has gone. I think the defenses have tightened up a bit. In the first six or sevens rounds, it was tough to score. Teams were defending well. All the teams have brought in a bit more experience which leads to better team performances, I think. We’re nine games into the season now so we are in uncharted territory really. A lot of teams didn’t play many games last year. I think we will see teams start to tire a bit as the season goes on. Depth is obviously going to get tested. I know we are struggling with some injuries and I don’t think it’s any secret that other teams are struggling with numbers just because of the sheer volume of games and minutes that boys are having to play. I think we are probably going to see a lot of points being scored and some really entertaining rugby. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. On one side of the coin the defense really tightened up in that regard but also the attack has gotten better. Teams are scoring some great tries and there are some really talented players on all the teams which is exciting and brings a welcomed challenge.”
What’s the feeling around the club before the first-ever match at Aveva Stadium?
“We are going to have a soft opening against Seattle at Aveva on Saturday afternoon and one of the draws for me coming down to Houston was definitely the opportunity to be a part of a new team and play in a new stadium. I’m 32 this year so I’ve played in some well-established clubs around the world and never in my wildest dreams had I thought I would be part of a team in the professional era to run onto a brand-new stadium for the first time. Hopefully, that’s going bring with it a little boost of energy for the boys. To have your own ground just creates a little bit more pride and excitement to play in front of our home crowd. It’s going to be a nice stadium. It’s not finished by any means. I think the Glendale game on the 24th of May is the Aveva night, the main sponsor’s home opener, so everything should be well and truly done by then. They’ve done a great job considering the weather the weather that they’ve faced in the last six months.
The founders and the investors are proud of it. The boys are super excited. We drive past it every day going to the gym and the training field, so to see it come together with some actual structures and some grass on the field is super exciting. We can’t wait and we hope the crowd gets behind us so we can return the favor to Seattle like they did to us about a month ago.”
What did you think about this week’s action? What did I miss? I would love to hear from any and all MLR fans as the season moves along. Feel free to shoot me an email at [email protected] with any MLR related topic that might be on your mind. I’ll address any emails in the next week’s Colton’s Corner.
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