WASHINGTON, DC— Nearly 200 ruggers descended on Catholic University’s athletic complex on Sunday. The reason? They had a shot at a roster spot on Major League Rugby’s newest team – Old Glory – which will play its home matches in Washington, D.C.
This fourth and final combine of the season drew a whose who of playing and coaching talent from the DC and greater Mid-Atlantic area. Old Glory’s three publicly-signed players— Josh Brown, Ryan Burroughs and Will Vakalahi— were there to aid the coaching staff in drills, as was USA Rugby and recent Bristol Bears‘ center Thretton Palamo. Also in attendance were many of the players and coaches from the Capital Rugby Union’s traveling all-star team, the Capital Selects, as well as hopefuls from as far away as Ireland and South Africa.
After introductions from team owners Paul Sheehy and Chris Dunlavy the day started with a spirited warmup, very necessary for the upcoming fitness test. The grueling task— 20M sprints back and forth for two minutes, seven times with a rest in between— set the tone for the rest of the day.
“When you look at the levels on that two minute shuttle run, there’s a pro level,” explained Old Glory Operations Manager Tim Brown. “You have to be able to stay at a certain level achieved. There’s a standard out there. We wanted to see not only could they perform after running it, but what number they recorded. That was the first tally we had the coaches doing before we went to the player evaluations— what number did they average, where were their scores?”
Little time was wasted as players transitioned from the fitness test to a two-hour batch of drills, broken up into 25-minute segments. The drills were different than what many players had seen at the club level; testing players’ mental acumen as well as the physical— could they think about what was coming next, especially after being put through the proverbial ringer, physically?
After the round of drills there was a 30-minute break then a split into backs and forwards to measure the players skills’ needed to perform at specific positions. Lastly, a game of touch to see who still had gas left in the tank to make some breaks and stay in line defensively. It was a long and demanding day. But all worth it for a chance at (Old) Glory.
“I’ve been playing rugby for ten years and my dream of becoming a pro rugby player hasn’t died one bit,” said Kory Harris, a 20-year-old back from Old Gaelic Rugby Club in Mechanicsburg, PA with speed to burn. “I hope to be part of the team, but one thing I wanted out of this combine was the total experience. We were running through great rugby drills you don’t normally experience at home clubs. Having a brand new professional club open up two hours from your home is rare, and hopefully more opportunities come in the future.”
The next step for players like Harris is to hope for an invite to Old Glory camps, and eventually the exhibition roster. DC’s newest professional sports franchise recently announced its 2019 season calendar—starting in May—as an advanced warm-up to its 2020 inclusion in the MLR.
“The process involved—I’ll consult with all the coaches here, present that to our coaching candidate pool, and get feedback on whether we want that player on the exhibition side. But the real target, if I was a player, would be having a contract for 2020,” Brown explained when asked what’s next on his side of things. “I want to thank all the players that came out and ask them to bare with us. We have over 330 players that we’re evaluating and we’re doing our best to get through all the video, all the trials. I personally want to make sure each person gets a fair shake, and I know the owners do too.”
Professional rugby in the nation’s capital once seemed a dream. It is now a reality. As the lone MLR team in the Mid-Atlantic United States, it will be sure to draw its fair share of spectators. The question remains: Which of these hopefuls will be joining them? And which ones will be suiting up on the pitch?