Old Glory DC’s inaugural exhibition season was a resounding success, as the team ended its trials on a two-game winning streak while attracting over 9,000 fans to Cardinal Stadium to watch the historic festivities. The Mid-Atlantic rugby community watched as the squad matured before their eyes. DC saw the progress from a pair of rough losses against tough, experienced international sides to racking up two inspired victories to close the season. The goal was to prove the concept of professional rugby in the nation’s capital, and the mission was accomplished with plenty of hope and promise for Old Glory’s first year in Major League Rugby in 2020.
The front office wanted to play worthy opponents that would challenge Old Glory and provide an entertaining, dynamic atmosphere to the fans. Three out of the four matches were against international clubs, and the fourth was a seasoned select side with deep experience playing domestically and abroad.
“We can’t say enough good things about the teams that visited,” operations manager Tim Brown said. “Old Glory is admittedly a work in progress, and Shannon, the Scotland U-20s, the USA Rugby South, and the Ontario Blues did us a huge favor by coming and competing against us.”
In mid-May, just over five months after DC’s entry into MLR, Old Glory’s introduction to professional rugby came against Shannon RFC, from the area around Limerick, Ireland. Despite falling far behind on the scoreboard early, Old Glory nearly pulled off a comeback in the second half but ultimately fell four points short of victory. DC scored its first points off a Nick Kuhl penalty and soon after, Dante Lopresti scored the first try. Down by 18 at the half, Old Glory awoke from its slumber as Vetekina Malafu and Dacoda Worth scored to cut the lead to 26-22. Unfortunately, time ran out before the team could complete the rally, but rugby had arrived in DC.
“It was getting to know each other’s game,” visiting coach Andrew Douglas stated. “It was a typical first game for a team with players that didn’t really didn’t know each other. You saw that we weren’t really connected come set piece time, and we threw too much ball away. It was a very typical first game and it showed the more time we spent together, the better we got.”
For the second competition on Memorial Day, Old Glory welcomed Scotland’s National U-20 team to Cardinal Stadium. DC worked hard to remedy its shortcomings from the Shannon game, and its play on the pitch showed marked improvement. But despite the progress, Scotland was the more polished and experienced squad. Scotland’s pace and line speed stifled DC on both sides of the ball and dominated to a 70-7 win. Old Glory did its best and had plenty of opportunities, however only Dante Lopresti was able to cross the try line in the first half.
“In the second game against Scotland, even though the score looked the worst, was where we really clicked,” captain Josh Brown asserted. “We knew each other’s abilities and we were communicating a lot better on the field. Basically, playing more like a team and less like individuals, but obviously, the Scotland U-20s were a really good team. That’s where [the maturation] started and then it was a downhill sprint for the last two weeks… The Scotland game is where we saw our potential and saw the level play we’re capable of.”
Old Glory got its first taste of victory on June 1 when it defeated the USA Rugby South Panthers, 28-7. All of the hard work and practice paid off as the offense scored four tries and the defense held the South to a single first half score. After not playing against Scotland, Ryan Burroughs and Oisin O’Neill returned with first half scores and Ayemere Oiyemhonlan and Chris Kunkel finished off the second frame with tries. Fullback Nick Kuhl was one for four on conversions and added a penalty.
“We were building on the improvement we’ve seen and we put it all together [versus the South],” Douglas said. “It wasn’t a perfect game by any means, but it was progress and we got to show the players their true selves.”
Before a raucous crowd for the final match of 2019, Old Glory competed for one another and their fans for a decisive 29-15 win over the Ontario Blues. After tries from Josh Brown and Ryan Burroughs in the first half, DC found itself trailing the Blues in the early second. Putting together sustained possession and enthused play, Old Glory ran in for three straight tries from Khalid Williams, John Sage, and Vetekina Malafu for the victory.
“The players played for each other in the last game and they looked like they were enjoying themselves on the field,” Douglas added. “They showed their character after digging themselves a hole and the last 20 minutes was pretty positive for Old Glory… It’s a team that has shown real growth over a very short period of time. From where they started from to where they went, there is quite exciting progress there and that is the key to going forward. They want to learn and do better.”
THE ROSTER AND COACHES
Breaking down the roster, a total of 33 players donned the white jersey this season and 27 had their shot in the starting lineup. Captain/eightman Josh Brown, vice-captain/fullback Nick Kuhl, lock/flanker Tyler Barberi, flanker Dacoda Worth, and wing Vetekina Malafu were the only players to start each contest and Michael Reid, Sean Hartig, Khalid Williams, and Ayemere Oiyemhonlan joined them playing in each game. Players like Chris Kunkel, Selby Niumataiwalu, Ryan Smith, Oisin O’Neill, Darien Pickett, Michael Reid, Jack Iscaro, Zack Forro, and Mo Katz each made their presence felt, fulfilled their role, and contributed to the success of the club.
No one will forget the big tries from Dante Lopresti, the slashing moves from Ryan Burroughs, the skip pass from John Davis to John Sage, the breakaways from the Flyin’ Hawaiian, Vetekina Malafu, the bruising runs by Josh Brown, the offloads from Mo Katz, and the flowing locks of Fred Wintermantel.
All of the amazing athletes valued their time with the big club and will cherish the opportunities spent on the pitch with Old Glory. None of this could of happened without the expert coaching from Andrew Douglas and Toshi Palamo. Their instruction brought the group together and forged a team to be reckoned with.
“Coach Douglas was phenomenal and is the best coach I’ve ever had the pleasure of playing under,” Brown said. “He obviously has a lot of experience coaching at a very high level and he gave us a lot to prove. For most of us, we haven’t played for coach of this caliber so it contributed to really tough, high-intensity training. At the same time, he’s very approachable, full of knowledge, and we all learned a lot.”
According to Brown, Douglas ran a system that “wasn’t more complicated as much as there was definitely a higher level of accountability. Every single person had a clearly outlined responsibility. That’s the first time that I really experienced that much control over the play. Everybody knew exactly what their job was and you knew what the jobs were of the people on the left and right… It’s a higher level of accountability, players have clearly defined roles but you have to get your job done otherwise it’s going to be noticeable.”
After the final game, the front office and coaching staff will now have the task of evaluating the existing roster and deciding on the next steps to building its 2020 MLR lineup. Next year’s personnel will look completely different as the exhibition roster was comprised of the best of the local and regional talent and gems from the combines. A few players from the season have already signed 2020 MLR contracts with DC and others will be invited to join the practice squad.
“The players will go back to their clubs now,” Douglas said. “Some will play 7s and some will do their own conditioning program to look forward to their own club seasons. We will talk to all the players next week and a few will come in and be MLR players hopefully. That means come December, they will be in a full fitness program building to the MLR season.”
Douglas has high hopes for the offseason and welcomes the challenge ahead. “Hopefully [in 2020], you’ll see a fairly classy outfit that is going to be conditioned with a number of top-class players from all over the world coming together to play in DC… We got Old Glory out to the rugby community of DC. It has been a positive experience at the games and we got a base of club players that have been exposed to a different level of rugby. Hopefully, they can take some of that notice back to their clubs to widen the influence of rugby.”
Fans from all across the Mid-Atlantic and beyond came out in droves to support the newest MLR club in Washington, D.C. People arrived early to watch the curtain-raisers and stayed late to tailgate and rub elbows with their friends, family, and players.
As for the specifics on ticket sales, Old Glory sold a total of 8,246 tickets during its four-game run with an average of 2,062 paying customers per match. The first match against Shannon drew the most with 2,173, the Scotland game came in second at 2,070, the season finale versus Ontario pulled in 2,037, and the South match sold 1,966 passes. While most of the tickets were sold online prior to the tests, 407 people on average bought tickets at the gate. General admission parking each match was also sold out for each game, and the tailgating lot was at or close to maximum capacity as well. With the addition of the players, coaches, and staff for the curtain raisers and VIPs invited to the events, the total attendance for the exhibition was over 9,000.
“DC has the best supporters hands down in Major League Rugby,” Josh Brown exclaimed. “I don’t know if the anticipation has built up a hunger but these fans are ridiculous. Actually, in a lot of ways, they willed us to those last two wins. To see people show up after we lose to Scotland 70-7, it could be really easy for them to just say okay I went to the first two games, I spend my money, I contributed, I’m done now. However, we saw the same 2,500 people every single game and then more and more just kept piling in. It was definitely really helpful and made it really hard for us to ever give up because we knew that you know the stands were filled with people who supported us.”
When game day finally arrived, the experience was fantastic. Cardinal Stadium at Catholic University was an excellent facility providing a great, accessible venue for the festivities. Along with the regular fare of hamburgers and hotdogs, Cuisine Solutions’ Big Glory sandwich was an absolute hit. Tested by DC’s players to a resounding approval before the season, the title sponsor’s stacked combination of sliced beef sirloin, grilled chicken breast, and a pork cushion was a feast in itself. When paired with a pint of Guinness, you were put into a food coma. Major sponsors Leidos and Iron Vine Security each were extremely pleased with the product on the field.
“We wanted to give people a great experience and give them a taste of MLR rugby, but also work out the kinks,” Tim Brown said. “Like spring training in baseball, it was just an opportunity to try everything from the ticketing system to concessions. There are improvements you can make everywhere, but from the feedback from the fans both in social media and face to face, it was really nice to have people come up to you with their three kids and say it was you know the best sporting event they’d been to in the DC area. We’re really just getting started.”
For the curtain-raisers and halftime events, Old Glory showcased local men’s, women’s and youth clubs. The team would like to thank the Washington Irish Rugby Football Club, the Baltimore-Chesapeake Rugby Football Club, Old Breed Rugby Club, Cardinals Rugby, Fort Hunt High School Girl’s Rugby, Maryland Exiles High School Girl’s Rugby, the Washington Renegades, the Philadelphia Gryphons, Loudon Youth Rugby, Washington DC Youth Rugby, the Northern Virginia Women’s Rugby Club, and all the “Battle of the Beltway” regional all-star teams for their participation in the exhibition season.
The interest in Old Glory grew week by week and could be easily measured through merchandise sales and social media engagement. DC partnered with World Rugby Shop and during the season, Old Glory supplanted the New Zealand All Blacks for the top-selling team on the site. The website sold out of two runs of DC’s white home and blue away jerseys, all of the match balls, and backpacks.
For those who could not attend the games, Old Glory provided alternate avenues to watch or follow the match. Next Level Rugby broadcasted three of the matches live on YouTube, which garnered over 13,000 views. Preston Thompson, Roland Pratt, Stephen Lewis, and Bri Kim provided the play-by-play and color analysis of the game for the rookies and veterans of the sport alike.
In addition to broadcast media, the social media blitz was intense. In a short manner of time, the Old Glory DC online fan base grew exponentially and is on pace to match the ranks of other MLR teams like the San Diego Legion and Rugby United New York in terms of the total page like counts. Approximately 12,000 fans have followed the team across Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Organic user engagement on all posts, from player signing announcements to game rosters to the halftime and full time reports, has skyrocketed, proving an active fan base off the pitch.
The players could not say enough about the support the Mid-Atlantic rugby community has shown to Old Glory DC.
“If I had to wrap up the last season in one word, it would probably be unity,” Josh Brown said. “The support that we got from all the people that came to the games, all the local men’s and women’s clubs, and the players on the team, [was exceptional]. We went from a bunch of different rugby fans, rugby players, and family members to one single high functioning unit… In this really short period of time, we basically just became a solid family.”
“The DMV coming out to support Old Glory was awesome,” Nick Kuhl observed. “That was definitely the coolest experience I’ve had in my athletic career as a whole. Playing in front of all those people, it was incredible to see, [especially] after the losses and wins with everyone slapping hands and being so cheery and loving it. They were loud and proud every single game and that was the coolest thing. The best thing Old Glory has going for them is the fan base.”
“Our season was a success,” Tyler Barberi remarked. “If the ball bounces a different way in the first game against Shannon then we get the win. We came out and knew it would be a physical game but overall I thought we played really well over the season… The success of Old Glory was more than just two wins. The success was our growth over the season and it was great to see how we came together as a bunch of strangers and ended up brothers to put up some serious points on Ontario to win out the season.”
“It showed a lot that we had a bunch of local DI players that came together within four weeks and got to keep up with games against competition like Shannon and Scotland,” Vetekina Malafu said. “The fact that we were able to finish with two wins against the South and Ontario showed a lot of character. It was good to see everyone come and mesh together and find that mojo we had in order to put the team together.”
“Each game, we took it as an improvement, a stepping stone to what our potential could be,” Kuhl added. “Rugby is the greatest team sport that there is in the world. You can’t just throw a bunch of all-stars together and hope that it works. You have to work at it and we did. We worked hard a few days a week and tried to put it together in the games. It was a work in progress and by the end of the season, we came together very strong and we looked good.”
A tremendous amount has been accomplished in the short time since owners Paul Sheehy and Chris Dunlavey brought professional rugby to the District of Columbia. The journey has just begun, and there is plenty of excitement coming in 2020.
“We started to put this team together in May of last year,” Sheehy said. “We then participated in the Wales versus South Africa about a year ago and it feels like that was 20 years ago. In August, we were admitted to the league. It’s really kind of frightening to think of all of the things we had to do.”
“The name ‘Old Glory’ only came together in December of last year. In January, we signed our first player. In February, Scotland joined us and in March, we did four combines. In April, we signed our visiting coach, in May, we put on four exhibition games, and in June, we were able to cap what was a tremendous season.”
“We’ve climbed the summit, but it’s a false summit,” Sheehy continued. “I would tell you that all the hard work we’ve put in, what we really need is what we are watching right now [in the MLR Championship]. That’s going to take just as much hard work if not more to climb this summit. Old Glory has the team to plant the flag at that summit.”