Mark O’Keeffe: “I Have Never Been Happier”
Written by Joe Harvey | Photos by Matthew Bradford
Last season, the Austin Gilgronis missed out on the playoffs by 10 points. So close to making the postseason for the first time in the team’s short history, Sam Harris and the rest of his staff began preparing for further success in 2022.
As things stand, Austin are placed first in the West Conference after seven games played and are coming out of their bye week with a two point lead at the head of their division.
Hosting the Houston SaberCats at Bold Stadium this weekend, Mark O’Keeffe spoke to majorleague.rugby about life in Austin so far, and challenging for a Major League Rugby title.
In 2021, Mark O’Keeffe stunned many with his performances for Rugby ATL. Having left Rugby New York in the midst of a global pandemic, the Ireland-born back’s future was up in the air until he was offered an opportunity in Georgia.
Putting in consistently impressive performances, the 27-year-old was part of a team that made it all the way to the MLR Final. Losing that day at the LA Memorial Coliseum, it would be the last time that O’Keeffe would pull on an ATL jersey, his future being with Sam Harris in Austin.
Life in burnt orange has been kind so far, O’Keeffe registering five tries to date, forming a productive midfield combination with team captain, Bryce Campbell, and is breaking the gain line with relative ease at times.
His impact, along with the acquisition of Julian Dominguez from the NOLA Gold, has lent itself well to the team as they have raced to a 5-2 record heading into their first break of the season.
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Arguably the only low point of the season so far has been the last two games, where Austin have lost to ATL and the New England Free Jacks, the time to refresh much needed.
“We had been together for 12 weeks, and we have been training like cats, so I think everyone was looking forward to getting a week off physically, but also mentally,” O’Keeffe said.
“My biggest thing was mentally [getting time off]. It is so good to live in rugby, but when you come from Ireland, in Austin my only life is rugby and there is no escape until that week off.
“Us and San Diego were the only teams to have that long of a trot and I have been here since November, with two weeks off for Christmas.
“We have been on the go since then, and it has paid off, but the last two weekends have got away from us a little bit. The bye week has definitely done us well, we came back in and everyone is happy, smiling away and looking forward to this weekend and going up against a pretty strong Houston team.”
Despite having been on a bye week and not picking up any points in their last two games, Austin still have a buffer between themselves and the chasing pair of San Diego Legion and Seattle Seawolves.
Wins have come against reigning champions LA Giltinis, Seattle, Utah Warrios, Old Glory DC and the Dallas Jackals. These performances have seen a bit of everything, from free-flowing attack to ground and pound, the victory over LA coming after trailing at the half.
“I think with the last two games, because we were so mentally and physically fatigued, we tried to do stuff that we normally wouldn’t,” O’Keeffe said.
“If we stick to the plan that Sam and Mark Gerrard [assistant coach] have set out, if we do exactly what they say, it is going to work. Which is crazy to think.
“That is sticking to our system, getting into our flow state, where everything comes naturally – and it is not a very amazing way of playing, it is almost very simple.
“The easiest way to play rugby is sometimes the best way, like how New Zealand do; just hands and passing that gets them so many tries. We are not anywhere near that, but simplicity is sometimes the best thing.
“We did that in the first few weeks, and when we come up against harder teams, we kind of thought we had to do something else to change the way the game was going, but at the end of the day I think we can rely on the simplicity of our structure and our game plan to get us there again.”
HEAD NOISE CREW
While O’Keeffe is one of the Gilgronis’ leading try scorers in 2022, the other is fellow offseason recruit, Julian Dominguez. The Argentine spent three seasons in Louisiana with NOLA before being recruited by Harris.
If you look at what has changed in Austin between this season and the last, it is the speed at which they play at and their ability to break the opposition’s defensive line.
The latter is very much what the pair were brought in to do.
Not only have the dynamic duo done everything on the field they have been tasked with, but the pair have also developed a firm bond off the field, as well as the nickname of ‘Head Noise Crew’, which O’Keeffe has been branded as the president of.
“We have become very good mates, like brothers,” O’Keeffe said. “I was told I would get along with him, and he was told he would get along with me.
“The first couple of days they saw me and him hanging around each other, and we are not simple, but we had smiles on our faces and things like that.
“People think we don’t know what we are doing, but we are just laughing about everything else that is going on. I remember when we first came in, Sam and G were just laughing, because everything we did was right beside each other.
“We did a passing drill once, then they stopped and said ‘I don’t know why we are teaching you how to pass, because at the end of the day, you are not here to pass’.
“They just crack jokes about us, and it isn’t like we were pushed together either. Now we room together on every away trip, and he comes over to my house and I have to cook him food because he is useless in the kitchen. Absolutely useless.”
THE AUSTIN BROWNS
O’Keeffe’s first foray into MLR came in 2019, the same season in which Austin went winless and finished at the very foot of the league table.
Fast forward three years and the world looks very different with the team competing at the head of MLR and O’Keeffe is now on a roster looking to lift the Shield at the season’s end in late-June.
A sign of how far Austin have come is the nickname that New York gave the Texans several years ago, comparing the team to NFL franchise the Cleveland Browns, who two years prior had experienced a winless 2017 campaign.
“We used to call them the Austin Browns,” O’Keeffe said. “It was one of the last games of the season when I was in New York, we were on a one game losing streak and I remember someone saying that the Austin Browns were coming to town.
“They were 0-13, and we were thinking that they had to win one game, so we were pretty scared to be honest. If we didn’t win that game, we probably wouldn’t have made the playoffs.
“A big thing coming here was the coaching staff. I had never felt more wanted. I had a really good opportunity last year with Atlanta, but when I was able to chat with Sam Harris and every phone call I got with him or Mark Gerrard, I could tell they were excited for me to come.
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“I came to the conclusion that you go to places to make yourself happy and to places where people want you. I have said this a couple of times the past couple of weeks, but I don’t think I have ever been happier in my rugby career or life than I am at the moment.
“The fact that I am probably the happiest in my life at the moment, in Texas, is next level, because I have had good places to live, people around me and I think I have really found a home here, which is class, and I love it.”
Austin’s start to the season is indicative of a side with lofty ambitions this season. On a two-game losing streak and nine games until the conclusion of the regular season, ending their clash with Houston this weekend will go a long way to consolidating their position.
Six of these final nine games will be on the road, with trips to San Diego, LA and to Utah on the horizon. But while those games will prove to be influential on what the Gilgronis’ postseason plans are, O’Keeffe says it all starts this weekend against the SaberCats.
“We have a tough stretch coming up, but we are going to take it game by game,” O’Keeffe said. “I think the West Conference is pretty open at the moment.
“At the end of the day, we haven’t performed in the last two games, but I think if you asked every single person at the start of the season where they wanted to be after seven rounds, you would have said that you wanted to be at the top of the table, and that is what we have done.
“We want to get back to winning ways this weekend, but it is not a sprint, it is a marathon, so we have done enough to put ourselves in that position, now we have to do enough to put ourselves in the position to be at the top by the end of the season.”
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