Sam Windsor living the American dream on & off the rugby field
Former NSW Country Eagles flyhalf Sam Windsor was always happy to see where rugby could take him.
The boy from Bungendore, an hour east of Canberra, has spent the better part of the last decade travelling the world with rugby, but not even he could have imagined his journey would end up in Texas.
Windsor began his career in Canberra with the Brumbies academy in 2008 and after a two-year stint in the UK, returned to Australia to star in the NSW Country Eagles inaugural NRC campaign in 2014.
Despite leading the Eagles to an unlikely finals berth, the now 30-year old couldn’t crack into a Super Rugby squad at home and decided to pack his bags and head back to the UK.
“Ideally I would have liked to stay in Australia but nothing really presented itself after the first year of the NRC. That was disappointing but fortunately an opportunity presented itself with Worcester Warriors, who were playing in the Championship at the time,” Windsor told Rugby News.
However that stint was short lived. In his first match for Worcester, Windsor was hit late after scoring a try and blew out his shoulder.
“My Worcester career only lasted 10 minutes but I managed to score a try, so my strike rate wasn’t bad over there,” he joked.
“That injury was pretty frustrating because Worcester were about to go up into the Premiership and there was only one other flyhalf at the club so I would have been a good chance of getting plenty of game time. Unfortunately, it didn’t work out but that’s footy.”
Thanks to his Irish heritage, Windsor was picked up by Pro 12 club Ulster and moved to Belfast in 2015 to join the northern Irish powerhouse.
“I loved Ulster, it was a great city, a great club but I sort of fell into the same trap that I fell into when I was back in Australia where I was training hard, but just not getting enough game time,” he said.
“Paddy Jackson was starting flyhalf over there and he was playing really well, so there probably wasn’t a whole lot I could have done.”
With his options in Belfast limited, Windsor decided to join his American girlfriend back home across the Atlantic and went about contacting every rugby coach in the US that he could find.
While Pro Rugby had been launched earlier that year, the competition had been rushed and mismanaged from the beginning and it’s future seemed quite doubtful.
Windsor was advised however, that a new competition was on it’s way and that the soon to be announced Major League Rugby competition had a far more viable and sustainable future.
“The commissioner, who is the head of Major League Rugby, was involved in the Salt Lake City Major League Soccer team when that competition first started 15 or so years ago and he’s tried to use a similar model with rugby,” Windsor said.
“That competition continues to go from strength to strength and it’s a fair way ahead of rugby in the States at the moment, but hopefully rugby can follow a similar path.”
After spending a season playing and coaching a club side in Seattle, Windsor was the first player signed by the newly formed Houston Sabercats, as both a player and assistant coach.
Due to contractual issues between USA Rugby and the creators of the now defunct Pro Rugby tournament, Major League Rugby will play a modified season in 2018 featuring seven teams – Houston, Austin, New Orleans, San Diego, Seattle, Utah and Glendale.
The competition will then expand to 10 teams ahead of the 2018-19 season.
“It’s not ideal because we’ll be playing games in June and July this year and at that time the weather can be as warm as an Australian summer, so that’ll be tough but it’s something we’ve got to deal with in year one,” he said.
“Most of those clubs have formed from or had an established club side already in their city, so they’re not all starting from scratch like we are, but I think that will help with the growth of the competition.”
Windsor arrived in Houston in May last year and was one of just four employees that built the club from scratch.
“It was the President, his office manager, Justin Fitzpatrick the head coach and myself sitting in an office. I ended up helping with recruitment, branding, marketing, I was doing some legal work trying to help some of the international boys sort out their visas, all sorts of things so it’s certainly been an experience.”
After assembling a squad, Houston played five pre-season matches prior to Christmas, then played a nine match exhibition season, including a match against the Uruguay national side at a baseball stadium in south, west Houston.
“We didn’t know what to expect but we got about 5,500 to our first exhibition game and averaged about 2,500 across the nine matches,” he said.
“I’ve been asked quite a bit by boys from back home about the quality and I’d probably say it’s close to Sydney first grade standard. A lot of people have drawn comparisons to the Championship in England. The set piece is probably a little bit behind but I think that will improve.”
Houston recruited Fijian Olympic Sevens captain Osea Kolinisau and outside back Josua Vici to play alongside a number of cross over athletes and several players with strong Australian links.
“Jake Turnbull and Lindsay Stevens both played at Eastern Suburbs, then Zach Pangelinan and Codi Jones are both Americans but they played at Randwick last year,” Windsor said.
“I think I’ve known someone in almost every side we’ve played over here so far and I’m always getting questions and queries from boys back home who are interested in coming across so it would be great to see more Australians over here.”
Windsor said he’s confident the competition and rugby in America is about to take off.
“They’re already talking about expanding to 10 teams next year and New York are already committed. I wouldn’t be surprised to see two Canadian teams also join next year, I think 12 to 14 teams is a realistic goal in the next four to five years,” he said.
“Each team has owners and investors, then all the owners sit on the board for the league so everyone is in the loop. It’s a sustainable business model with a salary cap in place and there are smart people involved that want to make sure it is a long term venture, not just a short term fix.”
Last weekend, America won both the World Series Sevens tournament in Las Vegas and the American Rugby Championship, a tournament they went through undefeated and Windsor thinks America’s men’s and women’s sides will only continue to improve.
“For us, we want to try and harness that talent at an earlier age and get them playing rugby before they go to college. At the moment we are getting 23, 24-year olds who have missed out on the NFL, trying to learn the game. It’d be great to teach them those fundamental skills at a younger age,” he said.
“It we can create a pathway and get 16, 17-year olds choosing rugby over football, then I think you’ll see the quality of the competition and the US national side increase rapidly and I have no doubt they’ll be knocking on that tier one nation door in the next five to ten years.”
Now 30, Windsor said he thinks he’s still got a few more years playing left in him but admitted he’s already got one eye on life after rugby.
“I’ve obviously spent a lot of time in rugby at all different levels over the past few years, so I think I’ve got a pretty good insight into how a club should be run. But for now, I’m still enjoying playing my rugby and coaching at the same time,” he said.
“My fiancé and I both think that Australia will probably be our end destination, we’re just not sure when that will be. If I can learn as much as I can over here and develop some skills, I’d love to bring that back to Australia and continue the journey at home.”