Photo: Evan Lappen

Old Glory Almost Completes Epic Comeback in Inaugural Match

Down by 23 at the break, Old Glory rallies for unanswered three tries in the second half but comes up four points short to fall to Shannon RFC, 26-22

With nearly 2,400 fans in attendance for the historic first professional rugby competition in the nation’s capital, Old Glory DC’s inaugural test against Shannon Rugby Football Club matched the spectacle of the opening day atmosphere at Catholic University in Washington, D.C. The Division 1A side from the All Ireland League dominated the first half, but Old Glory amped up the tenacity and intensity in the second half to almost complete a comeback in the final minutes. As the final whistle sounded, Shannon won the Irish Ambassador’s Perpetual Trophy by a score of 26-22.

Despite the loss, visiting coach Andrew Douglas saw many positives in the defeat. “I was pretty happy the way the boys stuck to the game plan in the second half. At halftime, they could have easily been down, but they showed some real character and that’s a pretty difficult thing to coach… We brought more energy in the second half, we got off the line and tackled. The guys who came off the bench gave some real energy and enthusiasm and it made a big difference.”

Captain Josh Brown echoed his coach saying, “it was the first time on the pitch together for a full 80 minutes, but I’m not making any excuses. Shannon came out and did exactly what we thought they were going to do. Forwards ran hard and the backs ran wide, they were very shifty. We have to play a full 80 minutes, we played 41 minutes today. The try before the second half was crucial and… we kept it on them in the second half.”

In the heat and humidity, Old Glory struck first collecting their kickoff and working the ball downfield. Through successive infractions and a break from Will Vakalahi, the home team put the first points on the board via a Nick Kuhl penalty. In response, Shannon utilized its killer set piece to get to a five-meter lineout and eventually scrumhalf Aran Hehir snuck around the corner of the maul for the try.

Shannon regained possession and rumbled into Old Glory territory. On its third attempt inside five meters, Shannon wheeled the scrum and the referee awarded a penalty try at the 16th minute. Down 14-3, OGDC started to pick up some momentum only to have an aggressive defensive charge disrupt its backline pass. Shannon outside center Pa Ryan gobbled up the bouncing ball for the easy five-point dash.

Following strategic back and forth kicking, Shannon regained possession off an errant lineout and then again from a lost scrum. With the five-meter scrum, Shannon willed itself closer to the line and inside center Jack O’Donnell took a crash ball for the try. Ben Daly’s conversion banged off the post, but his squad still held a 26-3 lead with ten minutes left in the half.

Recognizing the hole that it was in, Old Glory stepped up its defensive game. Efforts ranging from Kuhl’s try-saving tackle on a break to stopping a driving maul inside the ten to a Mason McIlwee steal, OGDC refused to sit down for the Irish team. With little time left in the half, Old Glory took advantage of Shannon’s aggressive defense and Vetekina Malafu flew down the sideline. The wing offloaded to Kuhl in support and then Malafu got a bit closer. The forwards took over and prop Dante Lopestri dove in for Old Glory’s first ever try. Kuhl’s conversion was wide right and OGDC trailed at the half, 26-8.

After the break, Old Glory entered the pitch with a lot to prove. The home team must have taken visiting coach Andrew Douglas’ halftime speech as gospel because Old Glory refocused and didn’t play like a side down by 18 points. OGDC boosted the defensive pressure and as time wore on, tensions increased and the chippiness between the clubs was evident.

Old Glory made a few tactical substitutions but the biggest sparkplugs were Sean Hartig at #9 and Mo Katz at hooker. The Mount St. Mary’s scrumhalf’s pinpoint passes created the “go forward” that the offense needed and Katz’s passion and tackling were infectious.

Soon after coming into the game in the 54th minute, Hartig’s smooth transitioning directly led to a try to bring OGDC back into the match. After a Josh Brown hard run, the scrummie passed to Zack Forro who skipped to John Sage then offloaded to Malafu in full sprint down the sideline. The intrepid wing touched it down under the posts and Kuhl cut the deficit to 26-15.

Following a water break, Old Glory and Shannon kept up the brutal pace with most of the play in between the 22s. Shannon had the opportunity to build on its lead, but it ran the ball out the back of the tryzone after a stolen lineout. On the ensuing 22 drop, Shannon charged down the kick but OGDC maintained possession. Old Glory’s Katz bulldozed through the line and quick recycling and phase play inched them closer to pay dirt.

An unfortunate knock stopped the Old Glory advance, but it was Katz that forced a turnover penalty. Kuhl maneuvered through the defense on the quick tap and kicked the ball ahead. Dacoda Worth followed his fullback’s lead and recovered the ball dodging two defenders before diving under the posts. Kuhl completed the seven-pointer and Old Glory was only down by four with eight minutes left.

On the front foot and with the crowd behind it, Old Glory used its speed and power off the restart to battle a hardy Shannon squad. After a collapsed maul, it was OGDC’s scrum inside the 22. The ball went to the weak side but was knocked forward in the tackle. With less than four minutes remaining, Shannon controlled the ball with its forwards and kicked it into touch once time expired. The referee signaled the end of the game, but Old Glory had its head held high after a masterful effort in the second half.

From the Shannon perspective, coach Tom Hayes said. “It was a tough day for the boys given the heat and conditions. Given the circumstances, they made the most of it… From the set piece point of view, we’ve had a lot more time together as a group. Old Glory is still going to be moving forward as today is their first ever game together. They are just embarking now and I imagine they are hoping to get more cohesive going forward.”

In the lead-up games to the marquee match, the Washington Irish defeated Baltimore-Chesapeake, 27-16, and the Cardinals beat the Old Breed, 45-7, in the Honor Cup final.

Washington Irish jumped at the chance to play as the opener to Sunday’s match. “It’s definitely a big deal,” coach JP Perez said. “It was the first time we’ve seen something like this in the nation’s capital. We wanted to take advantage and be a part of it.”

Captain Chris Curtin added, “We wanted this and when we heard there was going to be an intro game, we wanted to be here. In men’s rugby, we put a lot of work in and we don’t get too many opportunities to play in front of crowds. To play in front of our city, we showed what we can do and paved the way for Old Glory to get a W today.”

As for the Honor Cup winners, coach Bill Browley stated, “it was a huge honor to play as the leadoff for the first MLR match in this area. We are huge supporters of Old Glory and the MLR and we hope it is going to do great things for rugby. We are happy to be a part of it.”

Old Glory DC will take the pitch next against the Scotland National U20 side on Memorial Day, May 27th, at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.

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