Houston’s rugby team savors a winning season and title shot

Houston Sabercats coach Pote Human told the team exactly how its season would go long before its playoff debut. All utility back Zach Pangelinan could call him was psychic.

Human joined a franchise that had a losing season in each year of its existence prior to his arrival last September. Pangelinan recalls hearing that the same story would continue to be written this year. Then Human told him how it would actually ensue as if he wrote it.

He said nobody would give the SaberCats a fighting chance to begin the season. Check. Human pointed to a three game stretch that was “tough but winnable” leading up to Week 17. Houston won those games. He preached about eventually needing a couple of bonus points to clinch a playoff spot. They did exactly that the following week.

Now behind resilient players like Pangelinan and genies like Human, the SaberCats not only willed their way to a winning season, but will compete in their first Western Conference playoff come Saturday at Aveva Stadium against Seattle.

“Culture for me is a non-negotiable,” director Heyneke Meyer said. “…if you get the culture right and guys start to play for each other, even if you’re not always the best team, the results will come.”

Before the franchise could ascend, it dwelled in the lowest pits of Major League Rugby for its first four years. Just last season, the SaberCats sank to 2-12 after a 2-2 start.

Fly-half Robbie Povey joined the team in 2020, seeing just a month of action before COVID-19 canceled the season. Povey, forced to remain home in England then, remembers feeling unsure of whether “he’d ever get back into it.” When league action returned, Povey’s first full year with Houston turned into a nightmare.

Pangelinan, who is the lone remaining member of the team since its inaugural year, missed most of the last season with a quad injury. It pained him to watch his team lose each week. It hurt even more that he couldn’t do anything about it.

When he returned, Pangelinan found short-lived enjoyment in playing the game he loved again. Then he took a step back and saw the bigger picture. The SaberCats hadn’t gone anywhere since his arrival back in 2017. By then, he felt it was just another season. Just another week. Just another game.

“Dark places, man,” Pangelinan said. “I didn’t know if this was it for me. … Darkest times were definitely after the season. I was just tired of losing. They think of Houston SaberCats in the MLR like, ‘Aw, yeah, I don’t want to go there.’”

Pangelinan saw things through, knowing his body had less miles on it than some told him. He looked on as Meyer arrived last July. Then Meyer brought on Human. Then he shifted the pieces around to create a picture that was worth showing.

After Houston made a name for itself as a team that could start off promising and fizzle out, Pangelinan held his breath through the first few weeks of the season. Little did he know, Meyer had a vision all along.

After serving as the longtime South African national team coach, Meyer’s phone rang a year ago, with one of his former players on the line detailing a need for direction for Houston’s professional rugby team. The SaberCats needed to win. Meyer saw promise from the rubble and made it his mission to turn the team around.

Meyer acquired players based on two things: character and mental toughness. He gathered new faces, some of which knew what it took to win in this league. He kept players like Povey and Pangelinan, who had already been through the fire. By the time he wiped his hands, Meyer saw a team that was ready to transcend past the franchise’s history.

“It’s like coal,” Meyer said. “Coal is not worth lots. But if you put it under pressure for years and years, that pressure turns it to diamonds. I wanted players that could soak up pressure, that when the pressure is there they can play for each other and keep calm.”

The team Meyer assembled hasn’t been perfect. The SaberCats have stumbled at times, like in their emphatic 43-5 loss to the Austin Gilgronis midway through the season — a loss Pangelinan called the team’s turning point.

“These guys brought us down to Earth,” Pangelinan said. “That Monday meeting after the review, the review was a heart to heart. … We would go over the clips, and there was a lot of it because we lost that game by a lot. That Monday session, guys really stuck in. Now it’s on the second half, and our road to the playoffs is perfect.”

As perfect as Human’s prediction.

Now 10 weeks later, Houston’s first ever playoff appearance will come in the WCF. Despite the SaberCats’ advancement to the WCF by way of Los Angeles and Austin’s disqualifications, the team feels that this outcome was potentially in the cards anyway.

“We’ve shown we can beat anyone in the league this year,” Povey said. “So we’re just gonna keep on showing that.”

Pangelinan emphasized the culture that Meyer has preached about. He claims that this Sabercats team is as tight knit as any one he’s been part of. Everyone does their job. He pointed to the “all-world” staff, acknowledging that Houston always had some kind of culture, but this one is a winning one.

Between the familiar faces and the newer ones alike, the franchise has shifted enough to move the meter in Pangelinan’s eyes. The team isn’t just inching closer to a championship. It’s growing to be celebrated.

“We want to be noticed, too, as one of the Houston teams,” Pangelinan said.

joel.lorenzi@chron.com

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