Austin Elite gets narrow win

SaberCats show promise in pre-season loss

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It was "Faith and Family" night at Constellation Field as the Houston SaberCats prepared to open up their 2019 season in front of hundreds of excited fans of all ages and creeds. While the atmosphere remained fun and engaging throughout the evening, it ultimately ended in a bit of disappointment for the home crowd, as the SaberCats fell to the Austin Elite 14-10.

The first half was a dream come true for fans of defensive rugby tactics, with each team making a number of goal line stands inside their own 5-meter to keep the score even at zero. Audible groans could be heard around the park as both squads came close to hitting pay dirt time and again, especially as Josua Vici (SaberCats) and Kyle Breytenbach (Elite) saw near tries slip away as each player found themselves just barely beyond the boundary of the touchline.

Meanwhile, inside the 22's is where fans got to see the fireworks happen. Scrumhalf Connor Murphy looked to distribute the ball early and often to his playmakers, giving opportunities to guys like Malachi Esdale, Olympic Gold-Medalist Osea Kolinisau, and the aforementioned Fijian-phenom known as Josua Vici.

While the swarming defense of Austin Coach Alain Hyardet continued to give Murphy all he could handle taking the ball out of the ruck, their firewall was eventually broken through around the nine-minute mark on a spectacular counter attack by the 'Cats, ultimately allowing Fullback Zach Pangelinan to go diving into the in-goal from 40+ meters out for the try. Sam Windsor would miss the ensuing conversion kick, sending Houston into the locker room at halftime with a 5-nil lead.

The second half came about with an increased sense of urgency from both sides to pull away from the other. Austin began to employ more high-risk passing phases, while the hits coming from the Houston defense got more and more physical. It was visible to fans on multiple occasions that tensions were running high amongst the players on the field.

With the help of a few Austin penalties, Houston was able to force its way deep into the Elite's territory, utilizing their signature "ground and pound" style of forward-oriented attacks, with Tight-Head Prop Charlie Connolly impressing many with his rugged style of play along the way. After a few exciting hits and some awe-inspiring displays of strength (don't skip leg day, kids), Alex Elkins was able to bully his way over the try line, drawing the first blood of the half and giving his team the 10-nil lead. A second conversion attempt by Windsor would go unsuccessful.

With their hopes of victory on the line, the Elite must have decided to take a page out of the SaberCats book, taking advantage of a few ill-timed penalties by the home team to put themselves in position inside the 22. Just as the 'Cats did to them minutes before, the Elite used their forwards to methodically gain ground, before a hard charging run from 'Big' Ben Mitchell put them on the board for the first time all game.

With the time remaining beginning to wane, each team began looking for that big splash play to put them over the top, with some crowd-rousing runs from either side seeming to fall just short every time. Austin was eventually able to find themselves inside the 'Cats 22 once again, but the home team were able to make a defensive stand that resulted in a turnover. Unfortunately, a box kick attempt by the 'Cats to clear it out was blocked, giving Elite reserve Aden McMullen the opportunity to scoop and score for the try, putting Austin ahead for the final time at 14-10.

Despite a last-minute attempt by the 'Cats to come away with the victory shortly after, the final whistle eventually blew on a penalty, ending the game in favor of the Elite.

While the final result may have been disappointing to those in attendance, there were still plenty of elements the 'Cats could walk away with while holding their heads up high. Mainly, their big play ability. This team has so many players, from Windsor to Trouville, to Vici and Esdale among many others who can give defenses hell all by themselves, and it certainly showed up on Friday night. And when they're in-sync with one another, it's an all-around nightmare.

Second was the physical nature of their defense inside the 22, which the arrival of new Defensive Coach Neil Kelly is sure to help improve even more. Austin's backs were able to work fast in the passing game, but more often than not they were left without an answer at the try-line door thanks to Houston's stout refusal to yield.

While the clouds may have briefly darkened the night over Constellation Field, the future is sure to be bright in Houston.

GAME STATS:

Houston SaberCats

Tries- Zach Pangelinan (1), Alex Elkins (1)

Conversions- Sam Windsor 0/2

Austin Elite

Tries: Ben Mitchell (1), Aden McMullen (1)

Conversions: Mitch Romera 2/2

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The media has mixed feelings about the James Harden trade. Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

James Harden was 100-percent exactly right earlier this week when he said the Houston Rockets were "just not good enough."

How could they be? Not when their moody superstar scorer, who makes about half a million dollars per game, shows up chubby, looking like a kielbasa about to explode in the microwave. Hey, some people eat when they're unhappy, it's a defense mechanism. In Harden's case, the only defense he's exhibited this season. At least he had a good excuse for missing pre-season training camp and alienating his teammates - he was busy partying with Cinnamon and Cherish in Atlanta and Vegas without a mask. Worst of all, he went into the tank his last four games in a Rockets uniform, standing around, arms folded, scoring fewer than 20 points each time, all Rockets losses. Fans in the front row were asking him to move, he was blocking their view of players who cared about winning. James Harden sabotaged his own team, a team that offered him $50 million a year to stay. Something that crazy could only happen in professional sports these days.

There's a saying that drives the American labor movement: "a fair day's wage for a fair day's work." It's the motto of the American Federation of Labor. The National Basketball Players Association is not a member. Harden's sulking on the court, cheating the Rockets and their fans, was unforgivable.

Harden, sitting out games while somehow being on the court, forced the Rockets to trade him - and quick - to Brooklyn. The trade, when you ignore the fine print and unindicted co-conspirators Cleveland and Indiana, sent Harden to Brooklyn in exchange for Caris LeVert (immediately flipped for Victor Oladipo), Jarrett Allen, three first-round draft picks and four swapped first-rounders. It's true, when you trade a superstar, you never get back equal value. The other team wins.

If it makes Rockets fans feel any better, the media in New York already has problems with their new problem child. I should say newest problem child. Kyrie Irving plays for the Nets.

"They (the Nets) gave up everybody! There's nothing left now. I just want to cry, It's awful," weeped WFAN Radio talk host Evan Roberts. For those who don't subscribe to weekly Arbitron ratings reports, WFAN is the most powerful, top-rated sports talk station in the Apple.

"You're leading down the road of doom. Harden and Durant could be gone in a year and a half. I'm not convinced this gives them a better chance to win a title. I'm living a nightmare again. They better freaking win."

Circle March 3 on your Rockets schedule. That's when the Brooklyn Nets, with their Big 3 of Kevin Durant, James Harden and possibly Kyrie Irving visit Toyota Center. I hear talk radio salivating over the record jeers that will cascade over Harden's name, although I'm not buying it. Fans don't think like the media does. I'm thinking that Rockets fans will welcome Harden back - one night only - with cheers.

Toyota Center public address announcer Matt Thomas: "Usually when former Rockets come to town for the first time since leaving, I give them a positive introduction. It's up to the fans how to react."

James Harden spent eight seasons with the Rockets. He is a spectacular player who watched other NBA players engineer trades so they could compete for a title. Harden didn't think the Rockets were good enough, and he's right. So he wanted out. We've all been there, a job we didn't like for a company we didn't like, for a boss we didn't respect. Harden wanting to be traded is understandable. How he went about it was deplorable. He hurt his co-workers.

Houston will make Harden pay for his disrespectful departure. He has an upscale restaurant set to open here. The name of the steakhouse will be "13." Harden's business partners may want to change that number ... before the restaurant's telephone number is disconnected. There are plenty of other restaurants in Houston. Rich people who can afford steakhouse prices hold grudges.

Rockets fans searching for a silver lining say, "We got two decent players and a whole bunch of precious first-round picks" for a malcontent who would rather be anywhere (except maybe Sacramento) than Houston." Yes, a bunch of first-round picks does bode well for the future. Anywhere, except maybe Houston.

Houston's draft war room isn't the most successful operation in the NBA. Over the past decade prior to 2000, under the direction of general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets made 16 draft picks. Not one of them is still in a Rockets uniform, many of them have sought employment outside of America, some outside of basketball. Among their first-round whiffs: Nikola Mirotic, Terrence Jones, Sam Dekker - all out of the league. Best of all, Royce White, who played three whole games in his NBA career and finished with a scoring average of 0.00 points per game.

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