A grin slowly spread across Chris Dunlavey’s face when he thought about it. He leaned back in his chair, his eyes drifting upward as if he could see it projected on the ceiling. And when he talked about it, he punctuated the idea with a silly laugh, drumming his fingers on the armrests of his chair.
The United States, a world rugby power.
Imagine, he said, “if it ever happens that rugby in the U.S. starts to draw some of the athletic talent that right now is trying to get into the NFL or the NBA or Major League Baseball. If the guys that failed to make an NFL roster last year all went to play rugby, we’d have the most talented athletes in the world."
And now Dunlavey, of management firm Brailsford & Dunlavey, and Paul Sheehy, of Sheehy Auto Stores, will pay rugby players to try to make it happen. They’re starting a professional rugby club in the District set on sparking a love of the game in the Mid-Atlantic and inspiring a new generation of rugby players.
Old Glory D.C. Rugby Club next year will join Major League Rugby, which launched in 2018 with teams in Glendale, Colo.; Seattle; San Diego; Salt Lake City; Austin; New Orleans; and Houston. Old Glory will spend the 2019 season hosting skills combines and tryouts and playing exhibition matches. It will play its first regular season schedule in 2020 as teams from Boston and Atlanta also enter the league. Toronto and New York teams are set to join for the 2019 season.
Major League Rugby teams play 16-game schedules; the season runs from January through May.
MLR granted Washington franchise rights for a wide market, from Philadelphia to Richmond and as far west as Columbus. Dunlavey and Sheehy hope to use that area to recruit local talent while encouraging parents to sign their kids up for rugby and younger athletes to try the sport, too.
“We’re really focused on trying to build this from the grass roots up,” said Sheehy. “It’s a grass roots sports. We’re working with the local youth teams. If we can get the local rugby community behind our effort, we can probably sell out a 5,000-person stadium.”
And the District, with its large international community, is one of the country’s hotbeds of rugby talent, though the sport is still mainly popular among a niche audience. Some prominent local prep schools, especially Gonzaga College High School, boast exceptional rugby teams.
When the ownership group held a season-ticket drive in 2018 to gauge interest in a local professional rugby team, the two men received more than 1,000 deposits from prospective fans.
“We are well aware that we are trying to create something new in a niche,” Dunlavey said. “We don’t have dreams that this will be tomorrow’s NFL or NBA or Major League Baseball. But I do think there is a place for rugby, not just for a team, but as another sport.”
Dunlavey learned to play the game as an adult and met Sheehy, a lifelong rugby player who played for the American national team in the early 1990s, as members of a host committee for an international rugby match at RFK Stadium. South Africa and Wales, two of the world’s top national teams, played in the District in June 2018.
The game drew 21,000 people, and when the owner of another East Coast MLR team asked about starting an expansion club, Dunlavey and Sheehy jumped at the chance.
“There’s risk to it,” Dunlavey said, “but we both have enough of a passion about the sport and the belief in it as a good thing for our region that we want to get behind it.”
“It’s going to be tough,” Sheehy said. “We’re very clear-eyed about this.”
Old Glory is looking for a college venue to play its games, but hopes to build a rugby-specific venue after a few seasons. It will hold tryouts on March 10 in Columbus, March 17 in Philadelphia, March 24 in Charlotte and March 31 at Catholic University in the District.
The team’s owners hope kids in the area will want to try rugby, and that athletes from other sports will test it out, too. And that could help accomplish Dunlavey’s greatest dream. The United States is the “sleeping giant” of world rugby, he said. He wants Washington’s new franchise to help wake it up.
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