Says Ashley-Cooper, 37, who played 121 Tests: “It means a lot to the local guys, and the supporters who come and watch, they’re very patriotic. But ‘Gits’ is right: it’s different.”
As rugby slowly wrestles its way out of years of drudgery on these shores, a handful of Australians are building a club from the ground up in the City of Angels.
They’re taking on teams in New York and Utah and Atlanta, training on AstroTurf next to the LA Lakers’ training facility in El Segundo, riding electric bikes back home along the Strand at Manhattan Beach, doing school visits in Compton, watching Steve-O of Jackass fame light the cauldron before home matches and letting Pussycat Dolls lead singer Nicole Scherzinger into the dressing-room to sing happy birthday to one of the players.
As you do.
“It’s been a wild ride,” says Adam Freier, the former Wallaby who left Rugby Australia as its head of marketing and digital to become the club’s general manager.
The Giltinis are the brainchild of Adam Gilchrist, not the former cricketer but brains trust behind the F45 Training behemoth. He has a deep love of rugby. The Giltinis brand is a play on his name.
“I think a Giltini is just a double-sized martini,” Giteau explains.
Or, in other words, Australian-sized.
Their coach is Darren Coleman, a legend of club rugby in Sydney who is being courted by the Waratahs, although the Giltinis are trying to convince him to stay with a three-year extension. His assistant is Stephen Hoiles, another former Wallaby.
The squad is a mixture of professionals from around the world alongside local amateurs. Former Tahs captain Dave Dennis and Rebels centre Billy Meakes play alongside the likes of Randwick’s Christian Poidevin, son of Wallaby great Simon, and Nathan den Hoedt, who captained the Galloping Greens last year.
Giteau sits at the back of the room in video sessions, taking notes and still learning after all these years, then talks to Cristian Rodriguez, a utility back from the tough streets of nearby Hawaiian Gardens.
“The boys are great,” Giteau says. “They’re willing to learn and are keen about rugby.”
COVID-19 grounded the competition last year but since its restart this season the Giltinis are flying, leading the competition with six wins and just one loss, which came last weekend against New York in New York.
The match was played on a concrete-hard pitch. The players changed in a tent.
This weekend, though, they literally go from the outhouse to the penthouse when they play at the $6 billion SoFi Stadium in Inglewood, the new home of the LA Chargers and LA Rams and venue of next year’s Super Bowl.
Only 5000 will be allowed into the 70,000-seat stadium but it marks the first time a crowd has been allowed into SoFi because of COVID-19.
“It’s a bucket list item I never thought I’d be ticking off,” Giteau says.
He’s in LA after receiving a call last year from Ashley-Cooper, who after the 2019 World Cup started thinking about the next phase of his life post-football until Gilchrist enticed him to join his other MLR franchise, the Austin Gilgronis.
When Gilchrist told Ashley-Cooper he could join his second franchise in LA instead, Ashley-Cooper called his old Wallabies teammate, who had just spent three years playing in Japan.
“Are you interested?” Ashley-Cooper asked.
“I’m done, mate,” Giteau said. “I want to get home and spend some time focusing on the next chapter.”
Says Giteau now: “I thought playing Toulon in France for 18 months in 2011 would be the end of my career. We stayed there for five years, thought that was it, then I went to Japan, thought that was it, then this came up. I’m very grateful because it’s been refreshing.”
Freier became involved after a chance meeting at the LA Sevens in February last year after he had taken his young family to Disneyland for his 40th birthday.
He was introduced to Matt Burgess, who worked for Gilchrist’s Loyals Rugby.
Freier thrived working alongside innovative coaches like Eddie Jones and Michael Cheika, then interim RA boss Rob Clarke. Looking for a change, he packed his bags, flipped his hat backwards, slipped on his Vans and headed for the bright lights of LA.
Then the COVID-19 crisis struck.
“We were setting up a new sporting team in the sporting capital of the world, in the toughest sporting market on earth, during a pandemic, which then made LA the COVID capital of the world,” Freier says. “LA was locked down, you couldn’t fly out of Australia, European players had to quarantine for two weeks in other countries.
“We couldn’t train in LA. You weren’t even allowed to have four people in the one room. We went to Maui for a camp, then we went to Oxnard, where the Dallas Cowboys train, but now we’re in LA and sitting on top of the ladder. Nothing has gone to plan – but everything seems to be working out.”
The Giltinis’ clubhouse is a converted factory complete with an indoor field and basketball court with an enormous American flag hanging on the wall. Street art adorns the locker-room.
Once a week, players and staff wear the kit of their favourite US team.
“It’s a modern-day version of 21 Jump Street,” Freier jokes before adding: “We’re militant in the way we train and work, but we do things differently because it makes the players happy.”
Gilchrist, who is media shy and declined a request for interview, has ambitions to take on Super Rugby teams, although the standard isn’t quite there — yet.
It’s best described as stronger than Shute Shield but not as strong as Super Rugby. Closer to NRC.
“It’s a decent competition,” Ashley-Cooper insists. “I certainly didn’t expect it to be this physical. You’re up against blokes with a lot of athleticism, some really big bodies who want to bash people. It’s been quite challenging for a 37-year-old with a dad’s bod after 12-month COVID break.”
The Giltinis have already established themselves as the entertainers, scoring 44 tries in seven matches.
That helps when you’re selling a niche sport to a city that has two NBA teams, two NFL teams, two MLB teams and one ice hockey side.
Some matches are broadcast on CBS but most of it is streamed live on The Rugby Network, which is known for its hilarious commentary.
Powerful Texan-born winger John Ryberg is often described as “The Quadricep with Eyeballs”. Whenever Ashley-Cooper touches the ball, the callers report, “He’s been playing since the days of the fax machine.”
The crowd at games is in the low thousands but growing as “rugbytainment”, as Gilchrist calls it, starts to gain traction. So far, the crowd is mostly young fathers bringing their children to matches and students.
There was a rumour going round that Hollywood star Mark Wahlberg was going to lend the team his private jet if it won the comp. Freier says it’s not right.
“But ‘Hass’ [Freier] did promise me celebrities when I signed,” Giteau laughs. “It was in the contract.”
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