Coach Sam Harris saw Austin Gilgronis disappear before starting again with the Chicago Hounds in the MLR, writes Andy Elliott
Building a professional rugby team without solid foundations isn’t normally a rush job. It’s a Grand Designs-type project that takes years, if not decades – and even then it might all come tumbling down after you max out all your credit cards.
Yet Sam Harris has had to don a hard hat and do just that in a matter of weeks with Major League Rugby’s newest franchise, the Chicago Hounds.
It was formally announced back in November that the Hounds would become the 12th MLR team in a league temporarily reduced to 11 following the withdrawal of the LA Giltinis and Austin Gilgronis.
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But prior to that, with no tools or materials readily available – say, no players, no staff, no training facilities and no stadium – head coach Harris, CEO James English and the Chicago MLR Founders Group (with former Ireland internationals Rob and Dave Kearney amongst their ranks) had to work overtime to get things in place.
With the MLR kick-off just around the corner on 18 February, there’s a heady cocktail of trepidation and excitement in Illinois as the Hounds seek to capture the attention of a region already enamoured with Bears, Bulls and Cubs.
“It’s a huge task to start a team from scratch, considering that this one has only been in existence for a few months. They didn’t even know they were going to be in the competition until mid-October and everything has moved very quickly, so that’s challenging,” says Harris, a former cross-code convert who played for Manly and Wests Tigers in league and the Waratahs in union.
“When we had recruited players to the club, they didn’t really know what they were signing up for; they had to take a leap of faith because we didn’t have a combination figured out for them. We do now.
“We’ve also been fortunate that the SeatGeek Stadium opened their doors to us. There’s a training base, meeting rooms, physio rooms, a gym and a ‘bubble’ just outside the stadium, which we’ll be utilising every day.
“A huge element in the MLR is the administrators and the coaching staff. If you can get the right pieces of the puzzle, that goes a long way for not just this season but the future of the club.
“It’s exciting to be the first MLR team in Chicago. I’ve been blown away with how crazy they are about sports. It’s such a big city that you forget it also has a small-town Midwest attitude. All the people are so nice and love to chat. It doesn’t matter what walk of life you’re in, they want to hear about it.
“Chicago’s such a sports-proud city and it’s our duty to really serve them well – and we have put ourselves in a position to do that.”
Harris has been bolstered by a slew of players arriving from his former club Austin, as well as from LA, in a special ‘dispersal draft’ after the two clubs were disqualified from the play-offs last season for “violation of league rules” – AKA salary-cap breaches.
The draft was intentionally weighted in favour of the expansion team, with Chicago getting the first, second, eighth, 15th and 16th picks in the first of five rounds and the initial ten in the second round. The Gilgronis’ USA captain Bryce Campbell, full-back Chris Mattina and centre Mark O’Keefe are three eye-catching captures for the Hounds.
The decision, however, negated two years of toil for Harris, with Austin finishing top of the 2022 Western Conference. While the 42-year-old admits that the Gilgronis and Giltinis owner Adam Gilchrist was far from blameless, he believes that MLR were looking for any excuse to get rid of the outspoken Australian entrepreneur. Harris, his staff and players were the unfortunate victims caught in the crossfire, he feels.
“It was crushing. I remember the day before we played Houston in the final round of the competition. I got a call at 8am and they (MLR) said they were going to announce it in 25 minutes and I had no prior knowledge that was going to happen. I had to get everyone up and tell them before they saw it,” said Harris.
“It was probably the longest day of my life but it was also one of the most rewarding as we had to discuss it, grieve about it and come up with a solution for the game day.
“To come away with the victory was telling for what we had created there in two years. We turned a struggling team into serious contenders.
“Who really knows what would have happened in the play-offs? You can’t say we would have won the whole competition but we put ourselves in a position to do so. To put in all that hard work and see it come to nothing, for political reasons more than anything, was a tough pill to swallow.
“Maybe the MLR were awarded an opportunity to execute something that would take our owner out of the equation. And our owner gave them that opportunity. But the amount of lives that were affected… not just the players, the staff and the supporters but also the youth teams that we had put time and effort into developing. It was tough on everyone and I was disenchanted with the level of support offered from both parties, there was nothing.”
Harris believes that any grudges that he and the ex-Austin and LA players still harbour will only serve to be a driving factor for Chicago this season. “Whilst I want sustained success, we’ve got all the elements to go all the way this year,” says Harris.
“I’m a c’est la vie type of character but I’ve got a very long memory. Between the Austin and LA players and everyone that converges in Chicago, they’ll have a chip on their shoulder and something to prove, and I can use it as a motivator. Sometimes there’s nothing stronger than the will to avenge something.”
This article first appeared in the March 2023 issue of Rugby World
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