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MLR Expansion Draft: Austin Gilgronis

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MLR Expansion Draft: Austin Gilgronis

After a fifth-place finish and just missing out on the playoffs in 2018, the team was winless in 2019. The team made leadership changes and attempted to reestablish its Austin connection with the Austin Huns, Austin Blacks, as well as with San Antonio and to support the Austin Valkyries Women's Rugby Club.

Editor's Note: Our list of unprotected players is our list alone—not an official team list of unprotected players but our speculation based on what we know.

The team rebranded to the Austin Herd and then were sold before the 2020 season and were renamed the Austin Gilgronis. The team also relocated their home field from Round Rock to Bold Stadium at CATC and played one match in San Antonio at Toyota Field.

The age range of the team's players is from 22-39. Eight players were 30 or older (JP Novak 39, Jamie Mackintosh 35, Adam Ashley-Cooper 35, Roland Suniula and Erik Jacobson 33, Brendan Rams and Peni Tagive 31). Ten players were 22-25 (Wilton Rebolo 25, Rikus Zwart, Luca Tani, Potu Leavasa, and Micheal de Waal 24, Mason Pedersen, Marcelo Torrealba and Maclean Jones 23, Stewart Morris 22). The remaining 19 players were 26-29.

The team began the season waiting for visa approval and this coupled with injuries, resulted in being able to have 30 players to scrimmage. The team brought in JP Novak and Alex Rees from the Austin Huns at flanker and flyhalf, respectively, and Chicago Lions captain and lock Erik Jacobson after an injury to Rikus Zwart limited him to one start. They also signed Life West's Colby Stevens at scrumhalf before the season, who was a late addition last season. Only Stevens played more than two matches.

Brazil international hooker/prop Wilton Rebolo sustained a concussion in the pre-season and this coupled with cultural adjustments, did not have him playing in any regular-season matches.

Brendan Rams, who played with the team last year and with the Austin Blacks this year, was signed due to injuries of Rebolo and then to Chris Schade, the latter after two starts. He along with Schade can play prop or hooker. Philip Hanson was also signed at prop but did not play during the regular season. Skyler Adams played one match as a reserve at loosehead prop.

Mason Pedersen continued his development at tighthead prop and is one of the team's front row building blocks. He was backed up by former Seattle Seawolves and Old Blue player LaRome White. Uruguay prop Juan Echeverria played primarily loosehead prop as a reserve but did start two matches at both at loosehead and tighthead prop. At 5'9" he is undersized for his position, but his experience makes him suited to have a greater impact off the bench. The front row was immediately improved with the signing of 35-year-old former All Black loosehead prop Jamie Mackintosh. Jamie will help the team in 2021 if he returns.

Maikeli Mudu Naromaitoga started all five matches at lock with Potu Leavasa Jr. moving from blindside flanker to lock. Luca Tani joined the team from San Francisco Golden Gate as the team needed another lock.

Former Western Oregon University football and rugby player Dominic Akina surprised many at blindside flanker and was select to an ALL-MLR team of the week.

He teamed with Canadian Moe Abdelmonem. Maclean Jones played for the Australia U20s, Queensland Counties, NSW Counties Eagles, and the Super Rugby Waratahs, but did not play in a regular-season match for the Gilgronis due to visa delays. He was slated to play before the regular season was canceled. Stewart Morris was the captain of Baylor's Rugby team and made the transition from center to flanker. He played in three matches as a reserve. Michael de Waal is from South Africa and played with the Blue Bulls Noord Vaaal Under-18s, USA U20s while playing for Lindenwood University, and also did not play for the Gilgronis during the season due to injuries. Lino Saunitoga also started all five matches at No.8 and his powerful runs and defense made him a key contributor.

The backs improved as visas were approved for Samoan international scrumhalf Pele Cowley, the arrival of Tongan international Kurt Morath, and former All Black center Frank Halai.

Before their arrival, Chile international Marcelo Torrealba started at scrumhalf, Zinzan Elan-Puttick at flyhalf, and Sione Fangaiuiha split time with Gabe Farley at the inside center with Peni Tagive at outside center. Former USA National Team 15s and 7s player Roland Suniula did not play during the season due to injuries, but his experience should be invaluable next year.

Uruguay international Rodrigo Silva started all five matches at fullback, but will likely move to wing with the addition of USA international Will Magie, who likely will be at flyhalf with Elan-Puttick at fullback.

Rodrick Waters, the former Western Colorado State University football player and who played rugby with the West Houston Lion last season, started three matches at #11. He already has demonstrated his prowess and potential for emerging as a key contributor. Corey Jones started all matches at #14. Austin Black wings Alex Faison-Donahoe started the first two matches and Reece Czarnecki did not play during the regular season.

When the team's ownership changed before the season Australia international center Adam Ashley-Cooper was signed. He prepared to contribute working with another former Wallabies player Drew Mitchell, who signed with Rugby United New York. It is unclear if his visa has been approved, but he will be with the team in 2021. At issue, is that he will be among the 30 protected players if he has obtained visa approval. If not, then it opens another spot for roster protection.

Likely unprotected players include Erik Jacobson,  JP Novak, Skyler Adams, Alex Rees, Reece Czarnecki, Alex Faison-Donahoe.

The last choice is a difficult one should Ashley-Cooper be considered part of the 2020 club due to visa issues. The team needs a couple of younger props, however, Brendan Rams performed well in 2019 and 2020 for the team, mainly as a reserve. He would likely be drafted by Dallas. Luca Tani is 6'4" and plays lock. Would he be drafted by Los Angeles if available or would he be available to return to the Gilgronis after the expansion draft has concluded or return to San Francisco Golden Gate? The team also has a surplus of talented back row players, however, if another player can not be protected it may be Tani, based on needing to sign a taller lock anyway.

Eric Jacobson will likely play with the Chicago Lions again in 2021, JP Novak will be 40 next year and be with the Austin Huns if he returns. Alex Rees, a young talented flyhalf, could be drafted by Dallas, but otherwise returns to the Austin Huns. Reece Czarnecki and Alex Faison-Donahoe both play with the Austin Blacks and if Dallas does select a wing, would likely choose the taller Faison-Donohoe.

—Doug Coil
DJCoil Rugby articles by Doug Coil are also available on Facebook. Other Social Media sites to follow or subscribe include TwitterInstagram, and YouTube for interviews.