Before a sell-out crowd at the St. James in Springfield, Va., Old Glory DC endured a rough first half to come back and beat Rugby ATL, 35-17, in its final Major League Rugby preseason match. The Atlanta ball club dominated in the set piece, the penalties, and the possession, but OGDC held fast and scored four tries in the second half with superior backline play and a resilient defense. With only two weeks before the season opener at NOLA, Old Glory still has a long way to go to be ready, and this victory is only a step in the right direction.
Many questions were answered on Sunday, but many more are still to be sorted out before the team’s first MLR test. Old Glory started slow, and Atlanta’s scrum dominance cast a large shadow on the first half. Once OGDC became more comfortable, the backline looked more threatening, and the ATL forwards slowed over time. The scrum issue should be improved with the much-anticipated addition of Tendai “The Beast” Mtawarira and the influence of visiting coach Alf Daniels. The coaching staff should be quite encouraged by Sunday’s result, but there is a lot to work on.
“We had to do a lot of defending, I think time of possession was 70-30 against us, so we were feeding off scraps,” coach Andrew Douglas stated. “To win a game against a well-organized team like Atlanta with that possession shows we got a bit of character there, but we have a lot of work to do in terms of putting a cohesive team together at the moment. We are surviving off a lot of individual talent and I would like us to put together a team environment.”
“We got it all there, we’re ready. To be fair, in terms of our set piece, the boys have had a lot of time. Now, we got two weeks until NOLA to put that all together and hopefully, we can get 50-50 possession and come out with a similar result.”
On the flip side, Rugby ATL head coach Scott Lawrence said, “I was happy with our rotation so we worked 23 against 28, rolling subs. We really wanted to put ourselves under physical pressure and get our substitution patterns down. I thought the guys battled well and the game was tight until the end when just the fresh bodies coming at them overwhelmed them.”
“I thought when there was a kick exchange, Old Glory was great with ball in hand, exciting with some great offload stuff in the outside channels. They were really great and put together unstructured tries for them in the end.”
After a moment of silence to honor the passing of Kobe Bryant and the National Anthem, the teams got down to business, with Old Glory dressed in blue and ATL in white. Big bone-crunching hits started the game and from the first set piece, ATL had the advantage in the scrums. After a scrum was brought down about four minutes into the test, Atlanta got the first shot at points and slotted the penalty. Down 3-0, it got worse for OGDC as Max Lum was yellow-carded for a high tackle.
With the man advantage, Atlanta kicked to touch and set up shop inside the 22. The chippiness between the clubs increased and the referee had to step in to settle things down. ATL continued its scrum dominance shortly thereafter with a pushover try and the 10-0 lead.
Atlanta took the 1,350-person crowd out of their game as Old Glory attempted to get continuity in its phase play but was thwarted by a slew of penalties. After a bad pass by ATL led to a five-meter lineout penalty, Lum returned from the bin and the pack asserted itself with a quick strike from Travis Larsen for five points. Renata Roberts-Te Nana tacked on the conversion to trail 10-7 with 22 minutes left in the half.
Following a water break, the OGDC penalties continued to mount, but Atlanta couldn’t convert an offsides call into points. Continuity and multiple phase play were hard to come by in the later stages of the half, but OGDC showed flashes of its potential. Co-captain Mungo Mason broke off a brilliant run at the end of the period, but Old Glory’s momentum was stopped by an infraction. The home team went into the locker room down 10-7.
Whatever Coach Douglas said at halftime must have inspired his troops, as OGDC got on the board two minutes into the half. Thretton Palamo fielded a kick along the sideline and crashed into contact, offloading to Dylan Taikato-Simpson. The fleet-footed fullback pitched to Mason, who took off on a one-way ticket to the try zone. The conversion was good, and Old Glory earned its first lead at 14-10.
After exchanging kicks for field position, ATL got the edge of the battle, and camped out inside the OGDC 22 for a sustained attack. The Old Glory defense stood tall, and after a change of possession and break from Mason, it was OGDC’s turn inside its opponent’s red zone. Old Glory was unable to capitalize, as penalties stopped its progress and the third quarter came to a close.
The final 20 minutes began with more strategic kicking and penalties, but the fitness, speed, and talent of the Old Glory backline took center stage. Looking to spin the ball across the field, ATL telegraphed the pass and Doug Fraser picked it off at midfield. “I tried to read their body language and it looked like they wanted to go wide,” Fraser said. “They weren’t quite deep enough and it gave us a chance to come up and go after them.”
Flyhalf Mike Dabulas chased in support and took the offload to the house. “I saw Dougy shoot up, luckily he got a hand on it, and was able to come down with it,” Dabulas remarked. “I knew he had speed but didn’t know how much he needed so I was there for support. Luckily, he popped it off and I was right there to support him.” The conversion was true from the corner and OGDC extended its lead to 21-10.
With the momentum, Old Glory rapidly regained possession and got right back on the horse down the sideline. A series of quick offloads started with Vetekina Malafu to Ciaran Hearn to Danny Tusitala and ended with Fraser diving for the second try in a matter of two minutes. Roberts-Te Nana nailed his fourth conversion and OGDC was up 28-10.
Atlanta never relented and showed it still had fight left as Alex Maughan scored in the 75th minute after a ten-meter lineout. Old Glory looked to be in scoring position deep in ATL’s territory following a penalty, but the ball was overthrown on the lineout. Looking to exit the 22, Atlanta attempted to clear, but Jamason Fa’anana-Schultz charged down the kick, recovered the pill, and dotted the ball down for his team’s fifth try. The game ended soon after and the home crowd celebrated its first victory against an MLR opponent, 35-17.
The scrumhalf-flyhalf combination of Tusitala and Dabulas worked well together as they played a fast-paced game, kept the tempo up, and made it hard for Atlanta to counter. The center partnership of Palamo and Hearn has the potential to be devastating, and with Fraser being a versatile backup from #12 outwards, the backs shouldn’t miss a beat.
In the forwards, Api Naikatini was an enforcer in the pack and was a disturbance in the middle. Co-captain Mason deserved a game ball for line-breaking ability and being a menace on defense, especially backed up in OG’s zone. Lastly, Fa’anana-Schultz turned the game when he entered the fray in the second half. After only joining the club this past week, he locked down the scrum with more weight and was going forward the entire time.
The difference between the two halves was remarkable. “I think we started to slow things down,” Mason said. “In the first half, they played off that, got momentum, and their scrum and set piece were really good. For us, we needed a little bit more time in our lineouts and scrum, get some proper set piece, and give our backs, who are amazing, a bit of a platform to strike off.”
Roberts-Te Nana believed it was the tempo that proved to be the deciding factor. “When we started to lift the tempo and bring them up to our standard and when they tried to come up, they got tired and we lifted again. In that last 20 minutes, we lifted even more and tried to push it out with our fitness and physicality that we’ve been working on in the last two months.”
“On a scale of 1 to 10, I thought we were about a six in terms of our potential,” Roberts-Te Nana added. “With 30% of the ball and a scoreline of 35-17, you can’t be too disappointed. If we get 50% of the ball or higher, I think we are really going to push teams and reach our full potential.”
Douglas is happy with what he witnessed but knows that this season is going to boil down to attitude and character and potential comes with hard work. “Defense is based on attitude. The guys have going to want to tackle and want to work hard for each other and get up and make another tackle. You can coach all the systems and techniques in the world, but if you don’t want to tackle, you don’t. Defensively today, we saw a good effort on that. We only conceded two tries, one being a penalty try and one in the 70-something minute. On very little ball, we had to do a lot of tackling, but we kept on and did it.”
“I think we have a lot of good pieces and Coach Douglas hit it right on the head,” Fraser said. “We have to show our character, and can’t get too amped up about this. Again, it’s a preseason game, and we got things to fix. That’s why we have these games to figure out what we need to fix and go in ready for NOLA.”
“We got two weeks off, but now it’s time for us to show up and put in that work,” Roberts-Te Nana concluded. “We’ve had two good victories, but that’s preseason. No one wins championships in the preseason, so now we put in the extra work. Coming into NOLA, we are going to hold nothing back.”