The Difference Between Winners and Losers
This post is a collaboration with Washington Irish Rugby Football Club players James Bragan, Jason Werden, Joe Edwards, and Larry Comiskey.
The National Quarterfinal match revealed an elevated level of competition from first whistle. Physicality, skills, and strategy were on display early as each side maneuvered to gain territory and advantage. The Washington Irish were no strangers to being undersized, relying on team defense, line speed, and proper technique to effectively stymie larger opposition. In this National Elite Eight matchup, no player would ever admit it, most players wouldn't even realize it, and the great players would relish it; the Detroit Tradesmen’s size, speed, and play equated to a force unfamiliar to the Irish compared to regular season and conference playoff competition.
A kick to win back lost ground loosed the opponent’s swift fullback in the early minutes of play. With a full head of steam and a trailing teammate in support the Irish defender was forced into a split-second game of mental chess: commit to the attacking runner or shade toward the support in the open field. 3. 2. 1. Decide. As north of 500 pounds between the three athletes hurtle toward each other at full tilt.
Collision. Ricochet. Three bodies careening at opposite angles with an audible crack. One crumpled player clutching his knee as the other two shake out their own dents and contusions in preparation for the next phase of play. This national quarterfinal competition would be no routine match. Game on.
By the time most members of the Washington Irish join the rugby club, they’ve played varying levels of meaningful rugby. Conference quarter and semifinal matches, invitational tournaments, sometimes even all-star squads, but rare are opportunities to participate at the national level. Most players are familiar with the brief moments and even whole games of quality, competitive rugby. The combination of grit, effort, planning, timing, and luck takes a unique level of commitment and focus. For the Washington Irish, this all occurs while balancing work, family, and responsibilities with players’ commitment to the club, but to rise to the challenge set forth requires investment across the whole roster and club.
Two years ago at the Washington Irish Annual General Meeting, the club found itself approaching a tipping point. The Mid-Atlantic rugby landscape was shifting as elevated competition ignited an arms race among clubs for emerging talent and edges in performance, often at the expense of the traditional social aspects native to the sport. Opportunities for match experience for fledgling players became increasingly scarce as clubs forfeited their B-side squads in favor of multiple competitive sides in different divisions, leaving up-and-coming Irish players with few chances to develop skills and demonstrate progress. The Irish needed to continue to foster a developing pool of players, but wished to retain the hallmark social nature that solidified allegiance among players dating back to the club’s 1980 inception.
That evening, during the AGM, a passionate debate played out as club members voiced their position regarding the club’s future. In the last decade alone, the Mid-Atlantic Conference (MAC) had produced multiple National Championship teams and regularly sent sides on to the national playoffs. Competition in the East, let alone the conference, was fierce, and despite many valiant efforts by talented rosters, the Irish had yet to top the MAC standings.
Nevertheless, a conference championship and a berth to Nationals remained the goal. So stated newly elected club captain James Bragan, and each member of the club echoed the ambition. It was decided that evening: the Irish would launch a Division III side in addition to the existing Division II squad to ensure meaningful competition for more players and establish a second opportunity to vie for supremacy against conference and national-level opponents.
Despite the new club structure, the following season was rough sailing for the Irish. The Division II team completed the season with a record of 2-5-1, and Division III experienced all the growing pains of a new side. But the Irish wouldn’t stay down long.
Achieving elite status in rugby often requires much more than talent and strategy. Much more than fitness, speed, strength. It requires the unity of the whole club, from starting lineup to green rookies, unwavering commitment to a common goal, even if it challenges culture and convention, and resilience in the face of adversity. This was the commitment the Irish made two years ago during the Annual General Meeting, and the club remained steadfast even after a season of trials.
Fast forward to the 2016-17 version of the Irish. The signature green kit adorned with the Irish crest, the DC flag alongside the shamrock, was familiar, as were many Irish stalwarts like props James McIntyre and Joe Edwards, second rower Andrew Exum, flyhalf Taylor Teaford, and center Mark Seiss. But the brand of play on the pitch, aided by an infusion of fresh talent and a coaching staff, comprised of Head Coach Julius “Toga” Fanueli and Assistant Coaches Brendon Worley and Steve “Duma” Johnson, united in their vision, represented a new look Irish. Match after match, the Division II team dispatched MAC opponents through the fall schedule, finishing undefeated and atop the conference standings.
Entering the winter break, the Irish were well within striking distance of the post season, but there was work to be done. A conference championship was the goal. That earns a ticket to Nationals, and closer to the goal of a National Championship. The team picked up where it left off to start the spring season, defeating the Raleigh Vipers in the debut, but were served a fresh taste of adversity the following week against longtime rival NOVA. The loss was a bitter pill to swallow, the result of missed opportunities and an opponent that rose to the occasion.
Yet the Irish returned to winning form, recommitting to the plan and self-improvement following the NOVA loss in the same way they did following the previous season. That meant a sharper attention to detail, a doubling down on mental toughness, and long, sometimes painful fitness programs orchestrated by player/fitness coach Matt Bales.
Several weeks later, the Irish had a second chance against their rival, this time with the regular season conference championship on the line. And this time the Irish would prevail, relying on stout defense and a grinding offensive game plan designed to wear down opponents. The hard fought 22-15 victory over NOVA at home secured the regular season title and the top seed going into the MAC Semi-Final round.
The victory was an affirmation of the club’s capability, and a confirmation that the club was engineered and calibrated for an elite run in the direction of a National Championship. But while the regular season MAC championship was a monumental achievement, the Irish’s journey was not done, and there were more successes to chase. Two weeks later, in the MAC Semi-Finals, the Irish tasted victory once more against Old Gaelic, traveling from Pennsylvania, by a difference of 39-10, propelling the Irish to the MAC Championship Match in Richmond, VA the following week against Philadelphia-Whitemarsh.
In Richmond, the Irish found their swing. The matchup was physical, and the Irish were visibly undersized compared to Philly. In the early stages of the match, both sides played to a violent stalemate. However, the difference would prove to be the hours of sprints to exhaustion and detail-oriented tweaking to the game plan and skills, rather than size or brute strength. In the second half, the Irish ran away from Philly, outlasting the opposition and trusting in an offensive system once again to win the day. The clinical approach secured a commanding 42-12 victory, and punched the Irish’s ticket to Pittsburgh for the National Playoffs.
Thus the Irish found themselves locked in the toughest challenge yet, staring down the Detroit Tradesmen, National runners up from last season. On a picturesque pitch, home of the Pittsburgh Harlequins, on a bluebird day in mid-May, the Irish again turned to an offensive philosophy and defensive system that boosted the squad season-long despite a size disadvantage. The familiar storyline, however, this time yielded an unfamiliar result, as the Tradesmen bested the Irish in impressive fashion.
The point differential, 69-24 in favor of Detroit, left no doubt about the Tradesmen’s pedigree, and while the Irish discovered the pinnacle of their capabilities prior to achieving their ultimate goal, they had tasted new success and witnessed the path to the Division II summit. In the moments after the defeat, hanging heads quickly gave way to a familiar feeling: commitment to the grind, trust in the system, and eyes toward a return journey to the national stage.
As the Irish tore down camp on the sidelines at Founders Field in Pittsburgh, soft-spoken winger JC Culver piped up and offered a brief observation that has already become a mantra as the Irish look toward next season: “The difference between winners and losers is that losers keep playing until they win.” On to the next match.