Written by Evan Lappen

When Old Glory DC takes the field in less than two weeks to begin its second MLR season, it will have been 377 days since the league stopped play last March. Even though much has changed for the club, Old Glory will attempt to recapture the fire and intensity it exhibited last year, culminating with a 4-1 record. Head Coach Andrew Douglas has brought the gang back together and added several key components for the team to return to the top of the Eastern Conference. March 20th kicks off a sixteen-game schedule and Old Glory hopes to end the season hoisting the championship shield with its supporters in the Nation’s Capital.

Rugby After COVID

Less than two weeks after Old Glory played its last match against Atlanta, the MLR announced the cancellation of the remainder of the 2020 season, and the team and its fanbase were devastated. Coach Douglas’s first reaction was, “Shoot. And then it was alright. It was disappointing because it felt like we just started. We were starting to build something. It was disappointing, but at the same time it was happening all over the world, and it wasn’t just affecting you. People were dying, and in reality, rugby is just a game. It gave us a chance to regroup, and [Operations Manager] John Manson did some great work in terms of getting our structure and facilities in place, so we used that time really well.”

In the year since the shutdown, Old Glory has re-envisioned itself and hopes the new facilities and professional mindset will translate onto the pitch. During the first season, the team was practicing out of a trailer at the Fields at RFK, playing on a college football field at Catholic University, and the players were scattered around northeast DC. Now, players train at the state-of-the-art 450,000 square foot St. James sports complex with all the amenities, play on a full-sized rugby pitch at Segra Field, and most reside at the Trove in Arlington, VA.

“There is so much that goes into the St. James,” co-captain Thretton Palamo said, “They have amazing facilities. We’ve got [an indoor field], pool recovery, team meeting rooms, team gym, locker rooms.  We’re centralized with everything in one place. It cuts down a lot of the time in the day where we can get everything done efficiently. We can spend more time working together rather than getting place to place.”

“It gives us no excuses,” co-captain Mungo Mason added. “We have all of the toys and flashy stuff, but it comes down to the rugby side where it needs to be at the same level or higher. [Coach] Andrew Douglas has said that last year we had it tough, and we came through in a really good place. Now imagine, hopefully, what we are going to do with all these facilities and resources around us.”

With COVID still looming, returning to Catholic University was not an option. Old Glory looked far and wide for an alternative pitch. Ultimately, Old Glory landed a partnership with Loudoun County, the Loudoun United FC, and DC United to play at 5,000-seat Segra Field in Leesburg, VA. There will be no more football and lacrosse lines on the field as the team now can take advantage of a full-sized expansive pitch with plenty of seating and gameday areas.

“Wide and expansive, which is the way we like to play,” Mason said of the pitch at Segra Field. “Nice and quick and our backs have some talent. Hopefully, our forwards can provide a pretty good platform for them to flash. It’s going to be awesome. [Segra Field] is an amazing facility, and we’re going to hopefully pack it up full of fans, COVID-permitting. The atmosphere is going to be wonderful.”

For those who are disheartened with a move to Virginia for facilities, Coach Douglas explained it by saying, “There is nowhere currently in DC for us to play.  We want to look after our fans and make them safe and comfortable, and we’ve been offered a fantastic facility out at Segra. Admittedly, it’s a bit of a drive out of DC. If you could move Segra into the middle of DC, we would be the first ones to jump on it and play there. But we can’t do that and keep our fans safe. We are doing it because we care about our fans, we care about the game of rugby, and we want it to be showcased the best it can be.”

Building the Team

After Coach Douglas settled into the offseason, his first order of business was to evaluate the season, the squad, his staff, and the path forward. He gave the first season a passing mark but incomplete.

“First and foremost, [I wanted] make sure everybody was safe, and when it came down to reviewing our season, reviewing our personnel, what we could do better,” Douglas stated. “We looked at that internally and externally, and we looked at how we could make it better. We went about rebuilding our squad at that stage. We needed to know where to build. That was the biggest challenge.”

Douglas re-signed the core of the team bringing back the #9-#10 combination of Danny Tusitala and MLR points leader Jason Robertson, centers Ciaran Hearn and Thretton Palamo, wing/fullback Renata Roberts-Te Nana, and wing/center Doug Fraser in the backs and flanker Mungo Mason, second rows Api Naikatini and Tevita Naqali, #8 Jamason Fa’anana-Schultz, and hookers Maxwell Lum and Mikey Sosene-Feagai in the forwards. Jack Iscaro, Mike Dabulas, Sean Hartig, Josh Brown, Dante Lopresti, and Mo Katz have also returned.

In the first annual MLR Draft, Old Glory selected 6’8″ lock Casey Renaud, who has impressed in camp, and Matthew Gordon, a sure-handed flanker from Mary Washington. Additionally, as a result of Dallas not competing this year, the league held a supplemental draft, in which DC gained the services of a pair of fleet-footed wings in Cal-Berkeley’s Sam Cusano and Kutztown’s Dmontae Noble.

In free agency, DC addressed its biggest need in improving the tight five. Old Glory signed a trio of front-rowers in Scottish Premiership prop Steven Longwell, MLR veteran tighthead Jamie Dever, and Shute Shield/Hong Kong Premiership hooker James King. Former Harlequins and Exeter Chiefs lock Stan South is in the visa process of joining the club and will be a great addition to the engine of the scrum. Further bolstering the forwards, Canadian National Side and Toronto Arrow Luke Campbell has signed, as have Cory Daniel, David Beach, and prop Jack Carroll. Daniel Thomas and Owen Sheehy are recent signees to build depth in the backs.

“With players like Danny, Jason, Thretton, Mungo, and Ciaran, you wanted to make sure you had them back here because they made such an impression and did a good job for us in the first season,” Douglas said. “Then there were spaces you needed to create to give yourself enough room in the salary cap to fix the areas you wanted to fix. That’s why we brought in the likes of Jamie Dever, Steven Longwell, and Stan South to fix those shortcomings in our tight five. We had to create space for that, which means creating salary cap room so you had to make some harsh calls on certain players. As you can see from the roster, certain players from last season aren’t here, but the core of the squad is back.”

One of the biggest additions this offseason was former Glasgow Warriors captain Callum Gibbins. The Pro 14 / Super Rugby / Mitre 10 flanker brings his vast knowledge and experience to Old Glory as a player/coach. His effect has already been felt on and off the field. Gibbins will focus his coaching on the forwards and defense.

“[Gibbins] takes the professionalism to a whole another level,” Mason said. “He was a role model for me growing up, and I’ve watched his style of play and getting into the nitty-gritty. He’s a fantastic player and leader, obviously, and I’m a bit surprised that there has not been more publicity about him coming to the league. He is a huge signing. Captain of Glasgow and made the Pro 14 tournament team consistently for a couple of years. He could have easily played for Scotland and was on the verge of playing for the All Blacks. It’s a massive signing and takes the professionalism to another level, but he’s really approachable.”

The Schedule Ahead

Sixteen games may seem like a long journey for over five months, but for seasoned rugby players and coaches, it’s the perfect length. After a few rearrangements, Old Glory will play each of its Eastern Conference opponents twice as part of a home and away series and each Western Conference adversary once. DC has two bye weeks, with one after the third game and the other in the fourteenth week before the season’s final push.

The first match is a return to the scene of the crime in New Orleans, where Old Glory was handed its only loss last season. DC ventures south on March 20th to face NOLA Gold, who dealt a 46-13 shellacking at the Gold Mine on Airline.

“I’m looking forward to the NOLA game,” Mason said. “I haven’t talked to the boys yet, but there is a bit of a sting for us going back down. It’s not revenge, but redemption… We didn’t really show [NOLA] the respect that they deserved. They have only gotten better and signed a few big names. They got JP du Plessis and a couple of others, and it’s only going to be more of a challenge. That’s what we want and what we are looking forward to.”

After NOLA, Old Glory hosts its first two home games at Segra Field with 1,000 rugby-hungry fans against Rugby ATL. DC has experience with the Rattlers playing them in the preseason and defeating them 31-29 in the last game before the shutdown. Atlanta will be looking to bite back and bring a ‘W’ back to Georgia.

Week three brings a new opponent as Toronto Arrows come to town before the bye. Toronto was 4-1 before the stoppage, ringing up big wins over Austin, Houston, Seattle, and Atlanta.

“Three pretty tough games, to be honest,” Douglas said. “Obviously, NOLA, we know how good they are. We are looking forward to going back down there. NOLA will be favorites as it’s their home grounds, and they are a big tough squad. At the same time, we know a lot more than we knew last time this year.

“Atlanta, we saw how close it was last season against them. They are a good side, well disciplined, well drilled. In Toronto, they are probably the league favorites. Toronto is picked to win this league with the Canadian national team basically playing for them. Three big asks, but it’s really exciting, and it’s a great way to start the season for fans to get involved against some quality opposition early on.”

“The first half of the season is more about growth,” Palamo said. “It’s whoever can develop faster and stay healthy into the backend of the season. In the first few games, I’m excited to see how we grow each week and how we can assess ourselves midseason to see if we are striding and developing from there.”

The middle of the schedule includes bouts with RUNY and New England back-to-back, a two-game road trip to Los Angeles to play the Giltinis at the Coliseum, followed by a jaunt back to Utah to battle the Warriors, and a return engagement from the Seattle Seawolves at home. Old Glory will then fly Texas to play the Sabercats, come home to host its closest neighbor in New York, travel to New England, and complete its nine-game quest at home versus NOLA.

The late bye comes at the right time for a potential playoff push. Old Glory goes on the road to Atlanta and Toronto for the Fourth of July before finishing the season with a two-game homestead against San Diego and Austin. Everyone with Old Glory is ecstatic to finish the season in front of the DC faithful.

“It’s going to be major; it’s going to be awesome,” Mason said of concluding the season in DC. “It’s going to be like last year with Atlanta and Seattle but kicked up a few notches. It will be hot out with a nice crowd, and hopefully, COVID has calmed down with vaccines rolling through. I can’t wait for the big rugby festival-type atmosphere. We’re gonna put on a show, and hopefully, we’ll have a lot to play for. Those two games will push us over the line and get us to the playoffs.”

Old Glory’s Best is Yet to Come

Through the last year’s trials, Old Glory has emerged stronger, more professional, and more prepared for the season ahead. A major emphasis has been put on improving the man in his mind and body and putting in the best resources to accomplish that goal. Coach Douglas has assembled a squad capable of raising the shield. Now it’s up to them to band together and get it done on the field.

“At the end of every training, we do a cheers call. One of the boys said ‘Mi Familia’ today,” Mason stated. “‘ My Family’ and it does feel like that. We’re lucky that we are with our mates for however many hours per day, four or five days a week. We are building a family-oriented culture. Many of the boys have their wives and family over if they’ve come from overseas, and, obviously, the local boys have their partners and wives and families here. We are trying to create a family-based team and environment that knows rugby is awesome, and we are lucky to be playing it, but it more about the bigger picture.”

“That’s definitely due to Andrew, and he picks personality over talent,” Palamo concluded. “From teams that I’ve been on, the best and most successful teams are the teams that are clicking on and off the field. You are willing to go a little bit harder for that team almost if it was your family.”

Coach Douglas’s ultimate goal? An MLR Championship, of course.

“That’s what we are here for, isn’t it? It would be nice to get to the playoffs for our owners who have given so much to rugby in this area… It would be nice to bring a playoff game to Old Glory and Greater Washington.”

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