After a dominating 92-21 victory over the U.S. Naval Academy last weekend, Old Glory DC is set to challenge its first Major League Rugby opponent on Sunday at the St. James in Springfield, Va. OGDC’s new Eastern Conference rival, Rugby ATL, will make the trek north for the final preseason match before Old Glory’s inaugural season opener against NOLA Gold on February 8th. With roster spots wide open and plenty to work on against a quality opponent, Old Glory will be ready for the test and looks to get physical with Atlanta.
Looking back at the match versus Navy, it took Old Glory about 10 to 20 minutes to adjust to playing with each other before their experience, skills, and pace of play took flight. Navy came out with plenty of fight and exposed some weaknesses in the OGDC defense, but it was only a matter of time before the 31 players settled down and connected.
Once comfortable, the tries began to rack up, especially in the second half. In the end, Old Glory scored 14 tries, each by a different player, and three combined for ten conversions. The breakout included eight of the tries by the backs and six by the forwards.
“It was a good game for us to just get out on the field and feel each other out in a live situation,” fullback Dylan Taikato-Simpson said. “I give full credit to Navy, they came out firing. They really wanted to be there and had a lot of energy. We were a bit slow out of the gate, but once we found our feet, we started flowing.”
Putting up big numbers is great, but center Thretton Palamo believed it didn’t allow the team to focus on other areas. “Scoring on the first phase didn’t help us work on multiple phase play. Whether we got a line break or made a mistake, we couldn’t get more than three phases together. We want to see what it looks like if we can get to the fifth phase, what the shapes look like if they tackle us behind our gain line, and how do we reset from that. There were a few things we wanted to see but we couldn’t because it didn’t happen in the game.”
“It was always was going to be a tough one for us, because people will say that if we won, we are only playing a college team, and if we didn’t win well, again, we were only playing a college team,” head coach Andrew Douglas stated. “For us, it was always going to be hard to please everybody in a game like that, but at the same time, we wanted to show respect to Navy.”
“It was a good physical hit out for us, we got some organizational work done so it pleasing,” Douglas added. “We got exposed in some areas defensively, especially in the first 20 minutes and at the end of the game. In the breakdown area, we weren’t as tidy as I would like, so they gave us a lot to work on. We missed a couple of one-on-one tackles that were crucial, we brought pressure on ourselves, we gave away a few silly penalties, and Navy capitalized. Once we realized we had to show more respect to Navy, defend our one-on-one tackles better, and be better organized, we got confidence and were OK. It was really good to be exposed in those areas.”
“Our strength was our adaption to the game,” Taikato-Simpson said. “We found ourselves in a little bit of a hole and we found a way to adapt to them and bring it up another level for us. Again, it was the first time out, we got a lot of things to work on and hopefully, everything else comes together well.”
With Navy in the rearview, the consensus thought on Rugby ATL is that they are a well-drilled, well-organized club with a ton of experience stemming from playing with each other at Life University. Atlanta has been busy this preseason beating NOLA 34-33 in front of a sold out home field crowd and then traveling to Las Vegas last week for a pair of match-ups. First was a controlled scrimmage versus the Utah Warriors, followed by 32-26 defeat to the Colorado Raptors on Saturday.
“They are a well-oiled and operated team because they have had such a big camaraderie with the pipeline that comes through Life,” Palamo said. “A lot of those boys come straight into Atlanta not missing a beat on culture or systems. We know they will be well organized, and that is what we are looking for to go up against. We need an opponent that is organized, fit, and always in our face. That is what we are expecting to see from them.”
Coach Douglas echoed his USA Eagle saying, “I expect [Atlanta] to come and really pressure us early on. We’re not going to be anywhere near 100% for this particular game. We are still trying a few things and trying a few combinations, and that’s intentional.”
“I don’t want to be a finished product just yet, so I think at times we might be caught short in certain areas. Our set-piece and breakdown work are still developing, but if we can have our basic organization on attack and defense going, I’ll be happy with that. I’m not worried about the scoreline, I’m worried about our performance and where we are at currently at this time of the year.”
The focus is more on Old Glory than game planning to beat Atlanta. Local players like Mo Katz and Josh Brown impressed, as well as recent rugby convert Corey Daniel, who played in only his seventh game ever against Navy. Danny Tusitala and Thretton Palamo showed their class in the last 20 minutes, and Doug Fraser exhibited his professionalism playing the full 80.
Guys are still arriving to the team, as Mikey Sosene-Faegai got here earlier this week and Jamason Fa’anana-Schultz will be in DC soon. Declan O’Donnell and Tendai Mtawarira won’t have a game before NOLA, but they are good enough and have played enough rugby to be ready to go for the opener.
This Sunday at the St. James will be time for players to prove they deserve a roster spot on the 23 against NOLA in three weeks. Only 26 guys will play this weekend, and position battles will be hotly contested as no one is locked in yet.
The battle for loosehead before the Beast arrives is between Jack Iscaro and Jake Turnball, while Tevita Naqali, Api Naikatini, and Dylan Pieterse are neck and neck in the chase for the starting locks. In the back row, Travis Larsen, Josh Brown, and Jack McLean are fighting for two positions with Fa’anana-Schultz on his way.
In the backs, the battle for backup scrumhalf behind Tusitala is between Sean Hartig and Michael Reid, and with Doug Fraser playing well in the centers, it may force Douglas to reconsider his starting combo of Palamo and Ciaran Hearn. At flyhalf, Jason Robertson is slotted as the #10, but recent PSU grad Mike Dabulas is doing some good work. Lastly, with four talented wingers on the roster, the race between Ryan Burroughs, Vetekina Malafu, Declan O’Donnell, and Renata Roberts-Tenana is fierce.
With the focus set on Sunday, Coach Douglas is “looking forward to us being put under pressure and how we respond to that pressure. Atlanta looks like a team that has been playing together for years, and it’s great for us to get beaten up a little bit, to deal with issues on the run, and really excited to see how we will adapt.”
Palamo wants to see more cohesion within OGDC’s plays. “I’d like to see us facing adversity and what our outcome looks like in adversity. Atlanta will come and bring the heat and that’s what we need. I’m excited to see how we deal with it, how we react from it, if mentally we are still in the game or check out, and physically, how we manipulate what is coming at you.”
“They all are trying to show what they can do and force my hand into a starting spot or a spot on the 23,” Douglas concluded. “Lions only feed when they are hungry so I need them all hungry. We’ve got to create the competition to make them hungry.”