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The Aquilian

From Eye Street to the Rugby World Cup: The Story of Paul Sheehy

Since the founding of the program in 1988, rugby has been a unique part of Gonzaga’s DNA. One of the school’s most successful sports, the program has won four national championships, eight consecutive MAVRC titles, and has played top tier teams from around the world. The team has produced several professional players, including four in this year’s DC Old Glory squad, and is now one of the most played sports at Gonzaga.

Despite this unparalleled success, one of Gonzaga’s most successful rugby players graduated before the program’s inception. Paul Sheehy began his rugby career as a freshman at Fairfield University in 1981. At the time, the school was one of few to have a regulation rugby field, a feature which drew a lot of students both to play and support the team.

After playing his first four years of rugby at Fairfield, Sheehy returned to Washington, DC and continued his career with Washington RFC, a nationally competitive side featuring multiple USA Eagles.

“I played full back and wing, and two of the players in front of me on the A side were both on the Eagles,” Sheehy remembered, “so I had to beat an international player, just to get into the first side.”

 During his time at the club, Sheehy played in two national championships and lost both, a grudge he holds to this day. In his opinion, it was these matches that earned him his call-up to the national team.

The USA Eagles watch The New Zealand All Black’s Haka at the World Cup in 1991. (Photo Courtesy of Paul Sheehy)

Sheehy made his Eagles debut in 1990, five years after joining Washington RFC and was invited to the World Cup squad in 1991 alongside Kevin Swords, a WRFC teammate. The Eagles came into the tournament as significant underdogs, and to make matters worse were drawn into a group of death. They would face New Zealand, England, and Italy, three of the best teams in the world.

“It was a daunting task, no question about it,” Sheehy said. “But while it was overwhelming for some, you’re representing your country, and you’re gonna throw it all on the line.”

Sheehy received the opportunity to start against the All Blacks, and a last minute lineup change saw him start against England at Twickenham Stadium, an experience which he could only describe as a “pretty incredible moment.”

While the team lost heavily in each of their three matches, Sheehy takes pride in the team’s valor and determination, as well as the quality of their play relative to their lack of preparation time.

“We went and scored one of the better tries of the tournament in Twickenham against England, and that game got close enough that the English fans got a little nervous, of course they finished us off in the end,” he said. “We were thrown together, none of us had played together, a lot of us didn’t even like each other, but as we played… we started to perform better.”

Following his World Cup appearances, Sheehy played a season in Australia and another with Washington RFC before hanging up his boots, however, his rugby career was far from over. He got heavily involved in the DC rugby community, coaching youth sevens, starting a club at Georgetown Visitation, and coaching his sons’ Gonzaga teams. These experiences showed him the true depth and passion of the DC rugby community, and after seeing 21,000 fans turn out at RFK Stadium for Wales vs South Africa in June 2018 he knew that the region deserved a professional team.

Sheehy began to discuss the viability of founding a team with business partner Chris Dunlavey, and DC Old Glory was born.

“It made so much sense,” said Sheehy. “I can’t believe how well it’s gone. We had 2,500 people showing up to the [exhibition] games at Catholic University, and that wasn’t even MLR! That was really encouraging.”

Paul Sheehy (left) following the signing of Tendai Mtawarira’s (second from left) Old Glory contract. (Photo courtesy of the Goff Report)

Despite their debut Major League Rugby season being cut painfully short by the COVID-19 pandemic, the team has experienced significant success. They consistently sold out Catholic University’s Cardinal Stadium, and the signing of 2019 World Cup champion Tendai “The Beast” Mtawarira brought the team worldwide recognition.

“I couldn’t believe what we had accomplished,” Sheehy said. “To see Tendai and Dante Lopresti, a Gonzaga graduate, playing side by side was amazing. It was very rewarding when I sat back, looked at the crowd, looked at the team. I was proud of everybody.”

For the 2021 season, Old Glory have moved out of Catholic University and upsized to Segra Field in Loudoun County, Virginia. A professional venue with room for 5,000 fans, Old Glory will call Segra Field home for several years. The field will also play host to Young Glory, the team’s academy side.

“One thing we’ve learned during covid is that sports are great but fans make the difference. The fans are a necessity,” Sheehy said.

On Saturday, March 27, Old Glory’s 2021 home opener against Rugby Atlanta will be open to spectators, subject to social distancing and other necessary COVID-19 restrictions.

Old Glory opened the 2021 season on March 21 with a 26-26 draw at NOLA Gold, who finished fifth in 2019.

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  • T

    Tim BrownMar 30, 2021 at 11:32 pm

    He talks every day about helping youth – he is a real leader and challenges everyone in his auto business and on our rugby team to give back to the community. There are some exciting things coming inside the beltway in youth rugby! It is an honor to work with him every day.

    Reply
  • M

    Molly MayMar 26, 2021 at 10:04 pm

    What a great article! Written wonderfully 🙂

    Reply
  • C

    Carol CorganMar 26, 2021 at 7:39 am

    Great story about a relatively new local team headed by alum Paul Sheehy. I had no idea about his own rugby career.

    Reply