Giltinis win Major League Rugby championship in debut season

Giltinis win Major League Rugby championship in debut season
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The air was heavy with silence. Members of the L.A Giltinis sat in a pregame circle in their locker room, gazing at the floor. This Sunday match was of prime importance — the championship game in their dominant inaugural Major League Rugby season.

Tension diffused like a popped balloon, though, as head coach Darren Coleman strolled over from his office in a goofy suit jacket and a bright-pink tie over blue shorts. To chuckles, he told them the story of his introduction to the Giltinis: taking his dog for a walk on a golf course in Australia at the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdown and getting a call from owner Adam Gilchrist.

“I reckon life’s just a series of journeys,” Coleman told his team. “You never know what happens when you go for a walk with your dog.”

Hours later, the Giltinis’ journey of a season came to a triumphant close, with a 31-17 win over Rugby ATL at the Coliseum to clinch the MLR championship.

It was a long road. Players had to leave their families behind at the start of the season and put their faith in a new franchise. After the clock hit 80 minutes on Sunday, many gave a jubilant hug to their children amidst a cascade of confetti.

“All the obstacles and the adversity that we faced over the last 24 months is now easily forgotten,” said Giltinis utility back Adam-Ashley Cooper. “For me, there’s nothing more euphoric than that.”

Eighteen minutes into the championship match, the score stood stonewalled at 3-3 when flyhalf Matt Giteau cut through a swarm of opposing backs and tossed a pass back to wing John Ryberg, who took it over the tryline. Less than two minutes later, Giteau tapped a kick ahead to a sprinting Ashley-Cooper, who found Ryberg for his second try to push the Giltinis’ lead to 15-3.

Ashley-Cooper said after the win, tears brimming in red eyes, that this would likely be the last game of an illustrious career filled with Super Rugby titles and World Cup appearances.

“What’s beautiful about it is that I get to finish on my terms,” Ashley-Cooper said. “It’s been the most enjoyable year I’ve had as a football player.”

Rugby ATL cut the lead to 15-10 by halftime. At the break, Coleman asked his players, “Are you diamond or are you dust?”

They were the former, putting together a dominant second half to emerge with the victory. A volley of passes down the left side gave the Giltinis a try and 25-10 lead with 25 minutes left. Meanwhile, their backs forced turnover after turnover to stifle ATL’s forwards, holding them to a garbage-time try for their only points after the break.

A crowd of more than 7,000 — the Giltinis’ highest attendance in any game of the season, by far – raged on well after the trophy celebration. After starting the season playing before a sea of empty red seats, their passion impressed Ashley-Cooper, who predicted the Coliseum would be full for Giltinis games within a decade.

To continue growing rugby in L.A., owner Adam Gilchrist said the Giltinis plan to launch an under-16 program to develop local talent through an academy.

“For L.A., there’s always a space for great entertainment and great communities,” Gilchrist said postgame.

Coleman’s individual journey in Los Angeles rugby is complete, as he leaves next season to coach the Sydney Waratahs of Super Rugby fame.

So if life is indeed a series of journeys, how’d this one end for Coleman?

He put it simply.

“You look around,” he said, gesturing at the postgame celebration, “it’s such a f—– awesome day.”

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