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L.A. Giltinis advance to Major League Rugby's championship game

·5 min read
LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - JULY 25: Adam Ashley-Cooper #13 of the LA Giltinis runs the ball against the Utah Warriors in the second half at Los Angeles Coliseum on July 25, 2021 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for LA Giltinis)
Giltinis' Adam Ashley-Cooper runs the ball against the Utah Warriors on Sunday during the Western Conference finals at the Coliseum. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for LA Giltinis)

Pictures hung, taped in plain view, in every player’s wooden cubby in the Los Angeles Giltinis’ locker room.

Utility back Adam Ashley-Cooper, on glossy print, smiles with his wife and son. Outside back DTH van der Merwe’s daughter can be seen holding a sign that reads “Good Luck Daddy.” Captain Dave Dennis has a photo of himself laying in bed with his kids.

The Giltinis are in their first year as a franchise, in the four-year-old Major League Rugby. Most players hail from Australia and South Africa. In the first few months of their season, they traveled to Los Angeles ahead of their families. Coach Darren Coleman hasn’t seen his wife and kids for seven months.

They had to build a second family of sorts with the only people that were around — each other.

“Everyone’s had a unique position where they’ve had a wife and family, and they’ve made the sacrifice to be here,” Dennis said. “It makes everyone realize that if you’re going to make a sacrifice … do it the right way and put 100% effort into what you’re doing.”

They put that effort in Sunday at the Coliseum, winning a tense Western Conference finals match 17-13 over the Utah Warriors.

DTH van der Merwe's locker at the Coliseum features a photo of his daughter.
DTH van der Merwe's locker at the Coliseum features a photo of his daughter. (Luca Evans / For The Times)

“There’s going to be mistakes and errors, and it’s that ability to move forward, stay connected as a group (that’s important),” Dennis said after the game. “That has come from months and months of spending time together and relying on each other.”

The Giltinis were founded in May 2020. They’re owned by Australian rugby investment company Loyals Rugby, funded by Adam Gilchrist, who also owns the MLR’s Austin Gilgronis. Despite that dual commitment, there’s no potential for collusion, general manager Adam Freier said — all front-office decisions are made by committees unique to each franchise.

That Giltinis front office worked quickly to put together a mish-mash collection of international rugby stars and local Los Angeles talent. They got to know each other extremely well, very quickly. Too quickly, some might say.

A year ago, when players were first introducing themselves virtually during the COVID-19 pandemic, each team member sent a video to the group introducing themselves and their favorite drink. Dennis, from his home in Sydney, recorded himself completely nude — except for a wine bottle covering his privates.

Aside from tension-breaking moments like those, the Giltinis had an awkward beginning. COVID-19 restrictions prevented them from training in person in Los Angeles, Freier said, so the team hopped on a flight to Maui.

They found an empty polo paddock, mowed it and trained while they stayed on the island for six weeks in 2020. It should’ve been paradise. Yet it was hard to enjoy the picturesque sunsets when the people they most cared about were spending their nights alone, free of orange skies.

“Guys in Maui [were] going … ‘When am I going to see my wife and my kids, and when I do see them, have we got a house? Have we got a car?’” said assistant coach Stephen Hoiles.

Many players’ families, Hoiles said, were rejected at least twice by the Australian government upon requests to leave the country. When their visas finally came through once the team got to Los Angeles, some of the players’ pregnant wives lived in hotels for weeks.

“It has been a real tough ride, man,” Freier said.

That makes every win a little sweeter — a little more proof that the team’s sacrifice wasn’t for naught. They were building something, all those weeks alone. Living together in Maui, nobody could escape.

“We lived in each other’s pockets,” Hoiles said.

Giltinis teammates celebrate with Ryan James after he scored a try against the Utah Warriors in the second half.
Giltinis teammates celebrate with Ryan James after he scored a try against the Utah Warriors in the second half Sunday at the Coliseum. (Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images for LA Giltinis)

That’s created a tight-knit Giltini culture of playing for one another, Ashley-Cooper said. And that culture was apparent in Sunday’s victory.

In the locker room before the game Sunday, Coleman stressed the importance of two-man tackling while imploring his players to never quit or play soft. His message appeared to resonate as the Giltinis’ backs mounted a furious defensive effort that turned away Warriors’ attacks time and time again.

Yet after a first-half try by Ashley-Cooper — who, after an illustrious career in Australian rugby, was considering retirement — got the Giltinis on the board, their offensive pushes ran dry. After they took a 7-3 lead into the break, Los Angeles was down 13-7 deep in the second half.

Around the 67 mark, the Giltinis were denied several times to cross the try line. But an eventual pass to replacement wing Ryan James of San Diego trimmed Utah's lead to 13-12. A few minutes later, James juked a Utah defender for his second try and the eventual game-winner.

As the clock hit 80 minutes, Giltinis players hugged and celebrated. Now, they’re just an Aug. 1 win over Eastern Conference champion Rugby ATL from a championship in their first season as a franchise.

Leaving family behind for months was tough, Ashley-Cooper said. So the Giltinis have had a responsibility to create the right culture to see this season through.

“I can guarantee, next week, if you go on and win it,” he said, “all that’s forgotten.”

The Giltinis players and coaches gather for a photo with the Western Conference championship trophy on Sunday.
The Giltinis players and coaches gather for a photo with the Western Conference championship trophy on Sunday. (Luca Evans / For The Times)

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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