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Windsor relishing his role helping rugby flourish in States

By Jonathan Bradley

In a city better known for space exploration, rugby is ready for take-off according to the former Ulsterman who will be a key figure for the newly-formed Houston Strikers.

The sport has long been fascinated with the untapped market of the US, especially with the oft-repeated phrase that it's the 'fastest growing sport' in the land of the stars and stripes.

Ten years ago, its presence on the other side of the Atlantic was virtually non-existent, the only time it graced American TV screens coming in a slightly bizarre sub-plot of an often re-run episode of the sitcom Friends.

Indeed, when Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger decided he wanted to train with a rugby ball due to its slightly heavier feel, the story goes that his team's equipment manager had an almighty struggle to actually find one for sale.

Now, though, it's a different story with the number of high school players having increased tenfold over the past decade and NBC airing live both the most recent World Cup and Collegiate Championships.

And while the Aviva Premiership has already dipped a toe in the waters by staging a game across the pond, with the PRO12 also previously speaking openly of its own desire for a future American team, it is a league to call their own in 2018 that is currently generating buzz.

Filling the void left by PRO Rugby - a five-team set-up that attracted the likes of All Black centurion Mils Muliaina and Ulster's former Springbok Pedrie Wannenburg, but lasted just one season - will be Major League Rugby, with nine teams already confirmed and the Houston franchise set to have a very familiar feel to Ulster fans.

Coached by the province's 1999 European Cup-winning hero Justin Fitzpatrick, the former prop has already recruited a few more recognisable faces.

Sam Windsor, who left Ulster last season after a year and a half at the province, will be Fitzpatrick's assistant and fly-half, while front-rower and Belfast native Adam Macklin has also been convinced to make the move.

"With Justin here I'm sure there'll be an Ulster Strikers Supporters Club set up by the time the season starts," laughs the affable Windsor.

"We have had plenty of interest from Northern Ireland and lots of boys have expressed an interest in coming out - after their Ulster commitments of course!

"With the high number of ex-pats in Houston for the oil and gas industry, we hope to form a solid supporter base of our own and get good turn-outs for our games. Already the requests for season tickets and merchandise is through the roof."

Windsor still recalls his Ulster career with great fondness, saying "he loved every minute".

But in December of last year, having failed to feature for Les Kiss as much as he would have liked and become engaged to his US-based girlfriend Becca, he felt at something of a crossroads and the result was a bold leap of faith.

Despite the uncertain state of rugby in America, he took the plunge and moved across, soon linking up with Fitzpatrick who was then still at the Seattle Saracens, another side projected to take their place in the MLR.

And while the 30-year-old still misses aspects of life in Northern Ireland - not, though, he notes, the pre-season his old team-mates are currently enduring at the behest of S&C coaches Jonny Davis and Kevin Geary - he has dived head first into his new career path.

"Coaching was never a road I was keen to head down," admits the man from Bungendore in Australia who has yet to find the time for his other love, surfing, while over in the States.

"But after helping Justin Fitzpatrick with the Saracens, I found I really enjoyed it and was okay at it.

"I've still a lot to learn as a coach but there's also still a lot I want to achieve as a player too.

"I'm fortunate to have the support of the club here in Houston to do both and I'm really looking forward to the challenge.

"Fitzy is a great bloke and a great coach, even if a day doesn't go by without him reminding me of his legendary status in Ulster.

"We have a great understanding and mutual respect. We worked well together in Seattle and are both comfortable telling each other when we're wrong, and also accepting advice and criticism when it's due. It's a healthy balance.

"I'll certainly not be letting him sign another forward until I have a back-line though."

While Windsor is being light-hearted on the contracts issue, the recruitment process will be one of the most fascinating aspects of the Strikers' challenge.

At present, with pre-season due to start in September, they have signed 12 players of the sought-for 30, but will today host the first of two combines in the city with the aim of attracting fresh talent.

The big obstacle will be making a dent in an already crowded sporting landscape.

As of this week's mid-season break, the Houston Astros, having never won a World Series title, boast one of the best records in baseball.

Already this summer, the Rockets have paired one of the NBA's biggest stars, James Harden, with another after they traded for point-guard Chris Paul, while in JJ Watt the Houston Texans have one of the faces of the NFL, the country's most popular sport.

And less than 250 miles to the north lies Dallas and its Cowboys, a Super Bowl contender so ubiquitously popular they are nicknamed 'America's Team'.

While most young boys will have grown up dreaming of donning one of those more historic jerseys, a key aim of today's trials are to discover some hidden gems, the diamonds in the rough who have not quite made it in the other sports so deeply entrenched in a city of over two million people.

"It's a challenge in some aspects but also really exciting, having to recruit a whole squad," says Windsor with the Strikers the only MLR side starting from scratch.

"We are targeting some quality national players and also have our eyes on a number of local guys here in Houston.

"America is sports mad and this city especially. The overall appetite for rugby is great. Americans think it's a crazy sport where the players hit like football but don't wear the pads or helmets.

"There's so much talent but the percentage of athletes graduating from high school into college programs is almost as small as that going from college into the pros.

"We hope to offer another avenue and opportunity for players to achieve success at a professional and national level. The earlier we can get these athletes the more success we think we can have.

"Athleticism isn't a problem, it's the transfer of skills that requires the most work, but that's another exciting prospect for me as a coach."

Windsor is more than ready for the huge dual challenge of establishing rugby in Houston and himself as a coach. It may not be New York, but to appropriate the old Sinatra classic, if he can make it there...

Belfast Telegraph

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